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The Great God Pan 



by Robert Payne 


si \ "V^l, 





with love and admiration 


Arris is a study of Charlie the Clown, who 
first appeared on this earth on a winter's day in 1914. I have 
been interested in studying his ancestry, his moods, his ex- 
pressions, his adventurous career and the sources from which 
he derives his strength, and Mr Charles Chaplin has been 
allowed to enter the discussion only by implication, or on 
those rare occasions when he has broken silence and had illu- 
minating things to say about his distant relative. I have begun 
with the premise that Charlie exists in his own right like 
Don Quixote and all the great heroic archetypes, and I have 
assumed that Charlie has never for a moment scorned reality, 
but has waged perpetual war with it to his own infinite jest 
and amusement. I cannot see Charlie as the epitome of the 
common man pitting his feeble strength against the organized 
forces of his age; if this were all, there would be no reason 
to applaud him, for then he would be doing no more than 
anyone else. This study is concerned with the Clown, the 
generator of laughter and the divine creator of merriment, 
that whirling gust of joy which drives through the universe 
like a Milky Way. 

In a recent article Mr Al Capp, creator of the comic strip 
character Li'l Abner, has observed that we laugh at Charlie 



because he is more unfortunate than ourselves. He wrote: 
"No matter how badly off any of us was, we were all in better 
shape than that bum. The fact that we had enough spare cash 
to buy a ticket to that movie made us superior to him. That 
was the first thing that made us feel good. Next, we saw him 
starving. That wasn't going to happen to us— another reason 
for feeling superior, better off at least than one person." This 
is drivel. 

We laugh, because laughter to most of us is the closest we 
ever get to divinity. "Men," wrote St Thomas Aquinas, speak- 
ing with all the authority of the Church, "must live together 
merrily— this is the law." It follows that to laugh at misfor- 
tune is a crime against the Holy Ghost, a skandalon for which 
no penance is known, a sin so terrible that there is no name 
for it except whatever is the opposite of charity. One of the 
saddest commentaries on our age is therefore provided by the 
comic strips, where the misfortunes of the poor, the orientals 
and the insane are held up for our contemptuous approval, 
and Superman, an archetype who lies at the opposite pole to 
Charlie, is shown as the inheritor of all earthly blessings. It 
may be so. But it is odd that the Sunday morning rocking 
chairs should be filled with people revelling in the feats of 
Nietzsche's alter ego, and odder still if the divine providence 
which guides the universe should have brought about a world 
where Superman in his eternal void becomes the arbiter of 
destinies. Against the wickedness of Superman and all uncon- 
secrated authority we shall see Charlie waging war, but this 
is not to say that he wages war against reality. 

So this is a book about Charlie, half god, half man, and 
always vagabond, brother to St Francis and the moon, the 
loveliest thing that ever graced the screen. Look how he 
crosses the stage, the only real thing there, the rest being toys 
he plays with. His mustache is but a little shadow for his nose, 
his eyes are crafty as the eyes of Hercules, his battered hat is 
a sign of authority greater than Superman's magic interstellar 
boat. What is certain is that he is a better guide than those 


faceless men in rubber cloaks who have no gift for laughter. 
"What is humor?" asked Chaplin once, and answered, speak- 
ing with all the authority of his knowledge of Charlie, "It is 
a kind of gentle and benevolent custodian of the mind which 
prevents us from being overwhelmed by the apparent serious- 
ness of life." Chaplin's critics are accustomed to point out to 
him that he knows very little about humor. It seems a pity, 
for the answer he gave is one which St Thomas Aquinas 
would have approved of, and so would the friars of the Mid- 
dle Ages, and so would children, who have a keener sense of 
humor than their elders. 

Where does the clown come from? Where does he go? 
What purpose lies beyond the pale mask of the clown? By 
what stages did he travel into the world? Who invited him? 
What mysterious tasks does he fulfil? These are questions 
which were once important, and may be important again, 
and so I make no apology for the rather long introduction. 
It was necessary to trace the sources where they could be 
found, and to treat the clown with the utmost gravity. 

"It is a desperate business being a clown," Chaplin said 
once. It is perhaps even more desperate than he knew, for 
as the world grows more authoritarian, comedy vanishes 
through the back-window and wisecracks (which are not wise 
and very rarely crack anything open) take the place of the 
great explosions of comedy which were once our birthright, 
and which possessed the magic power of reducing us to our 
human proportions at the same time that they uplifted us 
to the highest heavens. It was not for nothing that Dante 
spoke of Beatrice smiling in the place of blessedness. What 
else was she smiling at if not at the beautiful madness of the 
divine comedy? As for Chaplin, it should be enough to say 
that he is one of the greatest jesters of the age, and like all 
great jesters he raises serious questions, and it would be an 
impertinence to treat his work less than seriously. He is a 
man who knew exactly what he wanted to say, and how to 
say it, and exceptionally determined upon repeating it in 


every key until he should be heard. The pity is that we have 
so rarely listened, and a whole generation has arisen which 
knows almost nothing of his work. 

We can hardly blame them: it is not their fault that the 
early comedies are often difficult to procure. Mostly we see 
them by chance. I saw The Circus and Tillie's Punctured 
Romance recently in a warehouse in Greenwich Village, and 
would not have known they were being shown unless a Czech 
barber had told me about them. I found Carmen in an ob- 
scure underground theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, which 
closed after the showing of a few films. One A.M. and The 
Kid were mercifully revived recently by the Museum of 
Modern Art in New York. I saw a torn and silver-splashed 
copy of The Pilgrim in Kunming, A Dogs Life in New 
Delhi, and a whole series of fading one-reelers in Paris, where 
copies printed in World War I were being shown nearly 
thirty years later. City Lights I have seen four times in the 
past year, but I saw Modern Times for the last time fifteen 
years ago, and what is written here is based on a fallible mem- 
ory and the lengthy report of a recent private showing from 
a friend. In the last months I have obtained nearly all the 
Keystone, Essanay and Mutual comedies from various Holly- 
wood and New York agencies. Nearly all these films are fall- 
ing to pieces. They have been cut abominably, sound has 
been added, many are faded and spotted, and in a few years 
nothing will be left of them. Someone must get to work. I 
have read that film more than forty years old gradually de- 
composes. There is need for the art-restorers of film. Mean- 
while there is every reason why those early films should be 
carefully looked after, preferably in the colleges and univer- 
sities—not that they should be regarded academically, but 
simply that they should be preserved. 

For help in the writing of this book it is pleasant to thank 
Mr Chaplin who very kindly discussed Charlie with me on a 
number of occasions, and allowed me to see the scenario of 
Footlights. I have not discussed Footlights in the book, be- 


cause a scenario is not a film. I am indebted to Dr Ruth 
Bunzel for delightful illuminations on the delight-makers; 
and to E. E. Cummings, Gilbert Seldes and Harcourt, Brace 
and Company for permission to reproduce the magnificent 
drawing of Charlie included here. It is also pleasant to thank 
Dr Lawrence Clark Powell of the University of California 
in Los Angeles, Miss Abi Russell of Alabama College, and 
the director of the Widener Library at Harvard University 
who gave me permission to reproduce Grimaldi's last letter, 
and the University of California Press which has allowed me 
to reproduce the drawing of a koshare from Virginia More 
Roediger's admirable study called Ceremonial Costumes of 
the Pueblo Indians published in 1941. I am grateful to the 
Film Library of the Museum of Modern Art, the theatre 
collection of the New York Public Library, the Bettmann 
Archive, Mr Raymond R. Stuart of Hollywood and Mr 
Irving Klaw of New York who have given me permission 
to reproduce the photographs. 

Robert Payne 
November, 1951 


i. The Great God Pan 3 

n. Kid Auto Races at Venice 9 

in. The Delight Makers 23 

iv. Marionettes 31 

v. The White-Faced Clown 40 

vi. The Funny Old Man with the Dripping Pan 53 

vii. The Dark City 68 

viii. The Coming of the Custard Pie 86 

ix. The Fabulous Year 98 

x. The Tragic Mask 117 

xi. The Hero 144 

xii. The Angel in a Cloud 168 

xiii. The Kid 181 

xiv. The Frozen Hills 196 

xv. Trapeze Act 207 

xvi. The Dark City, Thirty Years Later 218 

xvii. Modern Times 231 

xviii. The Great Dictator 242 

xix. The Sweet Worm Turns 258 

xx. Portrait of a Moralist 280 


Chapter One 

The Great God Pan 

JT an was the son of Hermes, the divine prince 
of knaves and liars and the herald of the dead. No one knows 
who his mother was, and no one seemed to care. As a child, 
wrapped in the skins of mountain goats or in the skins of 
hares, he was brought to the banquet of the gods, and because 
he delighted in everything he was called "everything," for 
Pan means "everything" in Greek. Such was one story; there 
were many others, including the story that all the gods fa- 
thered him and therefore he was "everyone." But it is more 
likely that the true origin of his name comes from the word 
paon, meaning a grazier. He was the god of the woodlands in 
Arcadia, and from the very beginning he seems to have had 
his goat's feet. Silius Italicus talks lovingly of the god Pan 
who left no imprint in the dust when he walked and could 
be seen turning round to laugh at the antics of his shaggy 
tail. The Homeric Hymn describes him as "the goat-footed, 
two-horned-lover of the dance" who haunts the snowy moun- 
tains and the inaccessible crags, but sometimes he comes run- 
ning down to the foothills where he slays the wild beasts and 
then, having won his victory, he plays a tune on his pipe in 
the evening. Sometimes he approaches the dark fountains, 
the springs in the mountain caves, and there he is seen sing- 
ing to the nymphs as they dance, and his song reechoes against 



the tops of the mountains. Sometimes, for no reason at all, 
he gives a shriek, and everyone runs in panic fear. 

Today we know far more about the rustic god than we 
knew forty years ago, but he still escapes us. We know, for 
example, that ancient Greek tragedy developed from the 
worship of Dionysos, but Dionysos himself was often con- 
fused with Pan, and Pan lies somewhere at the beginnings 
of the theatre. The origin of the stage was the goat-cart from 
which jests were flung. The art of tragedy itself derived from 
a fertility cult centered around a goat, beginning, as Aris- 
totle says, in trivial and ludicrous things, with much satire 
and dancing, until at a later stage it developed a dignity of 
its own. At this late date it is impossible to trace the origins, 
which were unknown even to Aristotle, but it is a reasonable 
assumption that a fertility cult in a time of drought is a seri- 
ous thing. 

There may have been tragedy, real tragedy as we know it, 
in the days when the god Pan was first worshipped, and if 
he was partly goat the reason was simple: he was the only 
beast the Arcadians could tame, and there was something 
altogether frightening in the way he could elude the hunters 
by roaming on the topmost crags. He looked crafty and evil. 
He was credited with fabulous sexual powers. He represented 
the terror of the woodlands, the menacing dark presences 
which lurked behind the trees. He was nimble-footed, lu- 
dicrous, powerful, so powerful indeed that he could create 
those solemn silences which suddenly descend on woodlands, 
and he could also create thunder. He was the voice laughing 
quietly which the hunter hears as he goes through the forest. 
Run quicker. This is no place for you. What are you doing 
here? In a sense he was the whole earthly world laughing at 
man's puny endeavors. Dionysos came from abroad, from 
Thrace, and he was a late adherent to the circle of the Greek 
gods, having wandered all the way from India. He was not 
essentially Greek. It is possible that the first of the Greek 
gods, the one most intimately discerned by the woodland- 


dwellers, the one who was most powerful, most terrifying, 
most difficult to placate was the great god Pan. In the end 
his power faded away, for there was no place in the solemn 
ceremonies of urban Greece for a mountain goat. In the first 
century of our era Plutarch speaks of a voice crying over the 
midnight sea: "Great Pan is dead"; but everyone knew the 
oracle was false. The mocking spirit of the woodland re- 
mained, and is still heard today. 

It is possible to reconstruct the ceremonies of the great god 
Pan. It is evening in Arcadia, the time of twilight and the 
task, of the goat's face seen through the trees and the sudden 
stirring of the leaves. On the blue crags, high in the sun, the 
goats are leaping, but the meadows lie deep in shadow. As 
the light fades the young men and women of the village 
dressed in goatskins come from their huts, walking softly at 
first, then leaping to the beat of drums, with great flying leaps 
imitating the goats on the highest crags, and behind them 
comes the empty cart, and behind the cart come the flute- 
players and the old people and young children, while at the 
head of the procession walks the priest with the goat-mask. 
As they come near the sacred place on the edge of the forest, 
singing the tragoi, the shouting grows louder, for they are 
now in sight of the ram itself, the animal caught in the 
thicket, the sacrificial beast, and they are about to follow a 
ritual more ancient than Babylon. The shouting ceases, 
drums beat, fires are lit, and on a crude altar the throat of 
the bleating ram is cut by the priest in the goat-mask, for 
only the goat-priest may kill the ram. Once killed, the flesh 
is torn apart and those who are not quick enough in snatch- 
ing it are beaten with leeks or onions, for the phallos is the 
emblem of Pan and the vegetables supply the substitute. 
Then dancing and singing by torchlight, and with many jests 
from the cart, with rustic plays performed by players whose 
faces are smeared with blood, they journey back to their huts, 
and in some way the journey has now become the journey 
from birth to death, and also the pity of the journey seen in 


itself; and so in all these sacred processions there is war be- 
tween the pity and the journey. 

Such then is the ceremony as we can imagine it. The goat 
becomes the symbol of fertility and daring, of insolence and 
the wide-ranging mind, of mental as well as sexual powers. 
We remember that the glitter of his horns on the high crags 
is the last living thing seen by the villagers before the sun 
sets. He comes before the horse and the bull, and something 
of the ancientness of the woodlands clings to him. His beard, 
his cloven hooves, the characteristic strong odor he gives off 
in the rutting season, the richness of his wool, all these have 
marked him out, so that almost inevitably he became the god 
of the woods and fields, of flocks and shepherds, a terrifying 
and fearful god who lived in the highest caves. The syrinx, 
the shepherd's pipe, was invented by him, and he makes peo- 
ple dance to his tune. 

We have spoken of him as a sacred character, the totem of 
the obscure Arcadian tribes, but this is not the whole story, 
though it is the most important part of the story. In some 
such way both tragedy and comedy had their origins, but the 
victory of Pan was short-lived, and though he was finally con- 
quered by Dionysos coming from Thrace, he was also bested 
by Apollo coming from Asia Minor long before Dionysos as- 
sumed his splendors. We shall never know exactly how 
Apollo won his victory, but some hint of it is given in the 
ancient story of King Midas, who wandered at the beckoning 
of Bacchus to the shores of the river Pactolus. Bathing in the 
river, he lost his prodigious power of turning everything to 
gold and became a peasant, worshipping Pan, who was so 
encouraged by the presence of the great king that he chal- 
lenged Apollo, saying that he could blow more sweetly on 
his pipe than Apollo could ever play on his lyre. The error 
was fatal. Apollo rose, wearing his laurel crown and his im- 
mense robe of Tyrian purple, and after Pan had played a few 
weak notes on his pipe, the sun-god struck the lyre and the 
mountain-god, Tmolus, awarded the prize to him. Pan re- 


turned to his woods. He still had a hold on the peasants of 
Arcadia: stories are told about him in Greece even to this 
day; but the new god of the East, a new conquering civil- 
isation, was sweeping over the primitive rustic cults of Ar- 
cadia, and Pan lost his preeminence. For a while Pan 
disappeared under the skirts of Dionysos who decorated sen- 
sual license with all the panoply he derived from the East, 
and held his own festivals, and tore the goat apart as though 
it had always belonged to him; but the goat-god with the leer- 
ing face, the reed flute and the goatherd's staff was indestruc- 
tible. More than all the other Greek gods except Zeus and 
Apollo he confronts us still with the terms of an everlasting 
and vital predicament. 

Who is he? Where does he come from? Where will he go? 
We shall never know the complete answers because they are 
inextricably woven into the human comedy. The great god 
Pan, the high and presiding genius of sensuality who is also 
the mocker of sensuality, the laughter among the leaves, the 
solemn rogue who sits at the pit of every man's stomach, the 
eternal wanderer on the high cliffs of the mind— take every- 
thing away, and he remains. There is no reason to mock him 
or be afraid of him, though he is terrible enough, and he is 
older than any of us. If we call him the spirit of license in a 
trammelled world, then we should remember that liberty 
derives from the ancient Roman god Liber, whose emblem 
was also a phallos and whose worship was performed by naked 
youths. Pan is the spirit of license, and to those who disap- 
prove of license it should be enough to say that by license 
we entered the world and by license we enjoy it and by the 
license of the mind we have made the prodigious discoveries 
which enable us to destroy ourselves; and all this was implicit 
in Pan from the very beginning. 

Frowned upon, pushed out of the way, thrown from Olym- 
pus to wander in the Arcadian forests where the wolves 
howled, the great god Pan survived. That face of terror and 
joy, those vast powers, ruled over the mediaeval carnivals. 


The old English mummers brought him onto their stage- 
carts and crowned him with leaves, and beyond the Atlantic 
the Indians of America performed his rites, not that he had 
ever been to America, but they found it necessary to invent 
him for themselves. He was I'homme moyen sensuel, the 
creature of ribald human instinct, the gypsy of the world, 
loathed (as the gypsies are) by Communists and Fascists alike 
because he fits into no preordained pattern and holds all 
patterns in contempt, and in our own increasingly mechan- 
ical and authoritarian age he is the perpetual outcast. 

In his purest form he appeared on the screen for the first 
time in February 1914. There were some who ascribed a 
peculiar blessing to the arrival of such a portentous person- 
age in such an unhallowed year. But he came jauntily, swing- 
ing his cane, wearing a seedy cutaway, a dilapidated derby 
hat, enormous out-turned boots, baggy pants and an absurd 
toothbrush mustache. As for the cane, it was all that was left 
to him of the goatherd's flowering staff. Head erect, pale 
from exhaustion, with livid black rings round his eyes, his 
mouth twitching, he came down a street in Venice, Califor- 
nia, as though he owned the place, and if he was hungry and 
down-at-heel, it was observed that there was something of 
the prince about him. Sometimes he gave a little skip like a 
goat or like a child, and there was an expression of extraor- 
dinary contentment on his pale ghost-like face. He was glad 
to be back again. 

Chapter Two 

Kid Auto Races at Venice 

lhe film was called Kid Auto Races at Ven- 
ice. In this film Charlie appeared for the first time wearing 
his strange, subtle and faintly terrifying mask. It was the sec- 
ond film he ever appeared in; the first, called Making a Liv- 
ing, belonged purely to the Keystone tradition, with Chaplin 
appearing as a dude with a Chinese mustache: it had nothing 
to recommend it. Kid Auto Races came like a bolt of light- 

The story of how Chaplin came to wear the mask has been 
often told. It has been suggested that the bits and pieces 
which went to form the uniform of Charlie were accidental 
and contrived on the spur of the moment. It is not quite 
true. The complete picture of Charlie had been in Chaplin's 
mind for a long time: it had come out of his studies of Lon- 
don street-types. He took Mack Swain's mustache, and cut it 
down until it resembled the mustaches worn by British offi- 
cers during the Boer War. He wore Fatty Arbuckle's im- 
mense trousers— this was admittedly an afterthought, but the 
out-turned boots were part of the general pattern he had 
thought out, and so was the small delicately poised bowler 
hat, and this too belonged to Arbuckle. On Charlie the hat 
was only a little too small. It balanced gravely, like a yacht 
on the water, on Charlie's curly hair. The bamboo cane was 



another afterthought, and for Chaplin's purpose the most 
precious of all, for it offered immense possibilities of "busi- 
ness." As for the boots, which belonged to Ford Sterling, 
Chaplin was puzzled about how to imitate the walk he wanted 
until he remembered the strangely menacing way men walk 
when they are wearing their shoes on the wrong feet. That 
splayed walk derived from an old cabman in London's Ken- 
nington Road, who suffered from bad feet and wore boots of 
abnormal size and slithered along the road in a painful and 
ludicrous manner. The surprising and beautiful thing was 
that all these odds and ends fitted together. They formed a 
new character whose possibilities Chaplin only half under- 
stood, though he was to explore them at length. The char- 
acter had emerged suddenly, fully formed. All Chaplin ever 
added to the costume was a checkered waistcoat, and even 
this was sometimes abandoned without any harm to the por- 
trait of the clown, who was not a tramp or a vagabond when 
he first appeared, but someone who came from nowhere, 
mocked everyone in sight, continually got in the way of the 
prop camera, brawled with the cops, pretended that the auto 
races were being run for his benefit alone, ordered everyone 
about and danced his silly dances for no purpose at all. With- 
out slapstick, without custard pies or bathing beauties, a new 
kind of comedy had arisen, and there was no name for it. 

But the comic character which Chaplin had suddenly in- 
vented did have a history, and its history can be traced— to 
a fat town-councillor in the island of Jersey, who amused 
and alarmed Chaplin in the summer of 1912 by the way in 
which he pompously directed the parades during a fete and 
continually got in front of the camera. By some magical 
means this absurd man succeeded with infinite aplomb in 
nudging everyone else out of camera range, until the Pathe 
cameraman became explosive. There he was, eternally smil- 
ing at the women, saluting the soldiers, kissing the children, 
and Chaplin promised himself that one day he would play 
such a part. When Chaplin asked Mack Sennett what part 


he should play at the auto races, he was told: "Don't worry. 
Just get in the way of the camera." Chaplin saw his chance. 
So the clown was born, but the clown had none of the pom- 
posity of the town-councillor, and if he ogled at the women, 
it was not because he wanted to be seen ogling them on film. 
What the clown derived from the town-councillor was a del- 
icacy of movement, a certain insistence on his own impor- 
tance, a power to nudge people out of the way; and if the 
clown was also absorbed in his own self-importance, it was 
for reasons which had nothing to do with the town-council- 
lor. But occasionally, no more than once every few years, it 
would be possible to detect on Charlie's face something of 
that amazing town-councillor, who finally succeeded in clear- 
ing everyone out of camera range until at last he stood there 
alone, beaming incomprehensibly and stupidly at a lens. 
But where the town-councillor was enormously fat and re- 
sembled in his utterances the Monsieur Homais of Madame 
Bovary, Charlie was atrociously thin and if he resembled 
anyone else other than the great god Pan, it was one of those 
sharp-witted street urchins who crowd through the pages of 
Oliver Twist, only now the street urchin had grown old and 
wise in the ways of the world. 

No one has troubled to enquire the name of the town- 
councillor who held office during a fete on the island of 
Jersey in the Channel Islands in August 1912. It seems a pity, 
for without him there might have been no Charlie. As we 
might have expected, Charlie came to birth as the result of 
an odd encounter of fortuitous things. One man's mustache, 
another's hat and trousers, someone else's boots, an old cab- 
man in Kennington Road, a town-councillor in the Channel 
Islands. To these Chaplin added his natural grace and dig- 
nity, a recollection of Max Linder's suavity, and an almost 
terrifying mask. 

As he remembers the day, Chaplin says he was aware that 
everything he was doing assumed profound significance in 
his mind, but he was not quite certain where the significance 


lay. His horror of the first film was burning in his mind. 
He was terror-stricken at the thought of failure. By assuming 
the new disguise, he was abandoning everything he had 
learned, and he would have to make his way through un- 
known territory. He had played many parts, but never a part 
like this. Usually he played a drunken toff who railed at the 
actors on the stage, threw things at them, coughed at awk- 
ward moments, burst out into absurd trilling songs at the 
moments when they were most absorbed in their own affairs, 
tripped them up with his walking stick as he leaned out of a 
box conveniently located on the stage— he had played such 
a part times without number on tours through England, 
France and America. Nearly always he had been the toff, with 
his monocle, his morning-coat, his high collar, his polished 
shoes and his sense of outraged dignity. Now he was some- 
thing else altogether, a mysterious and many-sided figure 
passionately absorbed in amusing himself in an oddly ca- 
pricious way, twirling his cane, laughing at everybody, a man 
who refused under any circumstances to take anything seri- 
ously and yet was wildly, ferociously determined to have 
things his own way against all the obstacles the universe set 
in front of him (for the character was split down the center 
from the very beginning) and at the same time there was a 
casual tenderness in his gestures, and if he mocked every- 
body, he was also mocking himself. 

There were fantastic complications in this pale godlike 
figure he had invented on the spur of a few horror-stricken 
moments. "Even then," Chaplin said later, "I realised I 
would have to spend the rest of my life finding more about 
the creature. For me he was fixed, complete, the moment I 
looked in the mirror and saw him for the first time, yet even 
now I don't know all the things there are to be known about 
him." Chaplin talks about Charlie without familiarity and 
with enormous respect, and he is not in the least convinced 
that Charlie's arrival on earth was an accident. Somehow, by 
some means unknown, Chaplin had tapped powerful forces. 


Explosive comic forces were let loose, but from the very be- 
ginning, Chaplin was aware of the tragic overtones. 

How explain the extraordinary creature who was now 
about to live his own independent life? What did he repre- 
sent? Where had he come from? It was simple enough to see 
where the parts were derived, but the whole was not the sum 
of the parts. 

Chaplin examined his creation and attempted to discover 
what Charlie was about. He saw that the big feet were nat- 
urally funny, that the bowler hat with its claim to a lost re- 
spectability was exactly the right size to rest nimbly on his 
head and could be made to assume an infinity of amusing 
positions, and that the baggy trousers had the effect, when- 
ever he turned his back, of making him resemble the rear 
end of an elephant. There was something absurdly comic in 
this waddling elephant who could be instantly transformed 
into a dancer. The heavy trousers and heavy boots chained 
him to earth, but they only just held him down. An airy spirit 
was contained in the baggy clothes. Charlie's essential light- 
ness does not appear on the posed photographs, but it does 
appear on the screen, and E. E. Cummings has caught it ad- 
mirably in a sketch which shows Charlie twirling in the air, 
a rose in one hand, the cane in the other, but the cane has 
been transformed into a conductor's baton as Charlie beats 
time to his own perpetual dance. It was this airy spirit which 
led Charlie into comedy; the tragedy lay mostly in the boots 
and trousers. Cummings wrote once in another connection 
that the expression of a clown is chiefly to be seen in his 
knees, and this, too, was true of Charlie, who was a compound 
of opposites, light and heavy, innocent and evil, invincibly 
noble and miserably wretched, bird and elephant. So, bird- 
like and elephantine, Charlie blunders and dances through 
the world, and like Pan he is wholly human, resembling 
nothing so much as the whole human comedy wrapped in a 
single frail envelope of flesh. 

The shape of the animal was unique; so was the shape of 


the mockery. He was enraged with the children who got in 
his way, and when he saw them looking surprised by his rage, 
he immediately assumed a look of hurt surprise, as though 
to say: "What! I am in a rage, and you are frightened! What 
nonsense this is!" Thereupon they burst out laughing hap- 
pily. Then Charlie laughs. The children are delighted, but 
there comes a moment when he finds their laughter unen- 
durable, so once more he bursts out in another roar of rage, 
and the children laugh all the louder until they realize he is 
in dead earnest: then their laughter freezes at the moment 
his laughter begins. He has calculated the precise moment, 
he knows exactly when the knife descends, but when this ex- 
traordinary process of mockery has come to an end, there is 
no punishment: Charlie skips out into the center of the road- 
way and having mocked the children, he now mocks the cops 
and the cameraman. The mockery is lighthearted, but there 
are undertones of tragedy. The mockery, of course, comes 
from long practice. He mocked the actors on the stage when 
he performed in Fred Karno's Circus, but he also mocked 
the audience. Now for the first time he mocks himself and 
enters those heady regions where the mocker mocks himself 
mocking himself and then goes on to mock himself mocking 
himself mocking himself and so ad infinitum, as though 
mockery was something that could be held up between par- 
allel mirrors and reflected interminably in a long gallery of 
gradually diminishing brightness. 

For an understanding of Chaplin's use of mockery Kid 
Auto Races at Venice is of quite extraordinary significance, 
for in that short film which took only forty-five minutes to 
make and lasted a bare ten minutes on the screen— it was 
spliced with another film called Olives and Their Oil to form 
a full reel— he was reaching out into all the potentialities 
which Charlie was later to reveal. The jaunty walk, the 
pathos, the innumerable tricks played with the cane, the 
fantastic power of mimicry which could not be used in Mak- 
ing a Living because a man in a top-hat and wearing a vil- 


lainous mustache is in no position to mimic anyone, the way 
he would tip his hat or shrug his shoulders, and the way all 
these could be used to mock and embarrass, were clearly dem- 
onstrated in this extraordinary film, where he sketched out 
the first rough portrait which was to develop depth and di- 
mension later. 

In that first film so many complex and contrary things 
were happening at once that it is worth while to pause and 
examine one or two of them. The most noticeable thing 
about the new clown was that he was a stranger and had no 
place there, was only there on sufferance and could not be 
removed only because he was far more cunning than those 
who attempted to remove him. His chief desire is to inter- 
fere with everyone and attract attention to himself, as though 
there was some mysterious message which he wanted to de- 
liver. What is the message? It is never disclosed, or rather it 
is disclosed by implication only too obviously. The street has 
been roped off on both sides to allow the kids' auto race to 
take place down the middle. All the onlookers are jampacked 
behind the ropes with policemen pressing them into line, 
while Charlie insists on wandering freely in the middle of the 
road. What he is saying clearly enough is: "What is all this 
nonsense of ropes? Why allow yourselves to be hemmed in 
by these ridiculous cops? If you want to walk across the road, 
why don't you?" 

It is not, of course, as simple as that, for when the mood 
takes him he will assist the cops and herd the people in line 
and gaze at them with a tender benevolence, without sorrow, 
noting the fact that they are placid and obedient and even 
applauding their obedience. He is without malice, and yet 
he suffers from sudden fits of merciless rage directed against 
the first object he sets eyes on. Wonderfully urbane and pas- 
sive, he will yield to incredible fits of aggressiveness, and 
some of these fits are real, while others are disguised, pro- 
duced simply to amuse himself or to amuse someone else or 
because he is bored with his own urbanity. What is masterly 


is the endless complexity of the character who is never a 
tramp, never a fool, but resembles most of all a god who has 
unaccountably found himself on this earth, and having con- 
cealed his godlike nakedness with the first clothes he was 
able to find and wandered unheedingly into the world's 
traffic, discovers that the world is completely inexplicable 
and obeys laws he will not even attempt to understand. Be- 
hind the dead-white mask and the sad eyes there is the mem- 
ory of a state of former magnificence, an earthly paradise in 
which no one was ever roped up and no little boys peddled 
furiously in wooden automobiles to the imminent danger 
of innocent wayfarers. 

Charlie is never a character easy to define and circum- 
scribe. It is not only that he is continually eluding us, but 
he is always suggesting he is something else, always mimick- 
ing, always chameleon-like taking on the character of his 
surroundings. When he mimics the cop, the cop can hardly 
arrest him, for that would be like arresting himself. When he 
mimics the children, they are first stunned, then they laugh 
uproariously, because it never occurred to them that a man 
could be instantly transformed into a child. But it is when 
he mimics himself that the complexities really begin, for 
since he is evidently the great god Pan, and even wears, 
thinly disguised, the goat-mask— for what else is the mus- 
tache but a sketchy replica of the goat's black muzzle, and 
why the baggy trousers unless it is to hide the cloven hooves 
and legs thickly covered with curly hair?— we enter a world 
where a god mimics himself in the pure enjoyment of him- 
self, and there seems neither rhyme nor reason for the doing 
of it. "Since I am a god or a fallen angel," he seems to be 
saying, "I can do what I damned well please. I can even 
mimic myself if I feel like it." 

Yes; but what language does he speak? He is a mime, and 
he speaks the language of mimicry, but the mouth opens and 
closes— in a great number of the films that followed the 
mouth was set rigidly— and presumably he is talking in com- 


municable terms to the crowds of children he addresses. Evi- 
dently he is talking some kind of divine gibberish. Everyone 
understands him perfectly, but he speaks in a language with- 
out grammar, without a known vocabulary, without any 
recognizable prosody. Mr T. S. Eliot has complained bitterly 
in some of his recent poems: "I've got to use words when I 
talk to you." Charlie successfully overcomes the difficulty. 
He uses words, but they are not words as we know them; it 
becomes increasingly clear that he is employing magic spells, 
strange abracadabras, and this is enough. The abacadabras 
are immediately understood by the children, even though 
the policemen are outraged, and never understand a word 
he says. 

That first film, that first epiphany of Charlie on the streets 
of Venice, is rewarding because it reveals the full measure 
of Charlie without the complications of plot or story. Having 
fallen from heaven or wherever the ancient rustic gods dwell, 
he has jumped up, dusted his pants and discovered to his 
intense surprise that it is a warm day in December,* the kids 
are having an auto race and there is a cameraman in attend- 
ance. What could be better? He proceeds to announce his 
arrival to the world. He knows he will be regarded as a nui- 
sance. He knows that the rulers of the world, represented by 
the cops, are immersed in the task of creating order out of 
the natural disorder of human beings, but he imagines they 
will have the good sense to pay attention to him, forgetting 
that they are as little interested in the coming of Pan as they 
would be in the descent of Christ in a thunder-cloud. Magic 
has gone from the world. His task— a task which the children 
instantly recognise— is to bring it back again. 

From the very beginning then, Charlie announces that his 
enemies are the cops and the cameramen and that he is on 
the side of natural man. He has no patience with law and 

* Careful enquiry has failed to reveal the exact day the film was made, but 
it appears to have been one day during the last week of December 1913. The 
film was released on February 7, 1914. 


order. Whenever he flares up in one of those outrageous 
bursts of temper, it is because he sees the futility of the law, 
the idiocy of those heavy men with batons who interfere in 
a child's auto race as though the race, the crowd, everyone 
taking part, were there simply so that the policemen could 
enforce the law, when everyone knows that a child's auto 
race only becomes splendid when everyone is allowed to do 
what he pleases, when all the autos jam together and the 
drivers spill out. A child's auto race should be fun. It isn't, 
because the police are always interfering. As for the camera- 
man, who insists on filming the race and does everything he 
can to forget Charlie, he is beneath contempt. He must be 
outraged into fulfilling his proper task, which is to film 
Charlie while the children take care of themselves. In order 
to outrage the cameraman, Charlie does openly all the things 
which people wish they could do in public, though they never 
have the courage to do it. He thwacks a cop on his backside, 
sticks out his tongue, struts down the street, pulls a cop's 
mustache, insolently mimics the flatfooted magisterial stride 
of the cop. He does all the absurd and wonderful things 
which people do when they think they are alone and not be- 
ing seen. He is the exhibitionist in all of us. And the chil- 
dren, who are exhibitionists by divine right, applaud him, 
torn between their desire to see the auto race and the more 
urgent desire to see Charlie for the pure pleasure of watching 
him at his antic play. Whatever he does commends itself to 
them. If he trips up a cop— excellent. If a cop trips him up- 
excellent. Captivated by the deft beauty of his clowning, by 
the clown's sense of bodily grace and rhythm, they are in- 
stantly removed from the world of right and wrong, and 
enter a world where everything is permissible. 

At this moment dangers appear. Since Charlie possesses a 
godlike immunity, since he can dart away from punishment, 
there is nothing to prevent him from doing anything he 
pleases. He is the possessor of prodigious powers. In his capa- 
cious pockets lurk thunderbolts, and when he prods a cop 


neatly in the seat of the pants with his only too flexible cane, 
he is not demonstrating his insolence so much as demonstrat- 
ing the threat of the vast powers he secretly possesses, a secret 
he shares with the children, for it is unthinkable that he 
should ever harm them. But as we know too well merely to 
possess vast powers is dangerous, and if it should happen that 
Charlie runs a cop through with his cane and transfixes him 
to the ground, as one transfixes a butterfly with a pin, the 
death of the cop would be amusing; and in the same way, if 
Charlie's head were broken by a cop's baton, that too would 
be amusing. It would seem that in the world of comedy kill- 
ing has a meaning which is totally distinct from its meaning 
in real life. In comedy it is inconceivable that people should 
really die. They may assume the postures of death, and then 
we howl with laughter, and the nearer they approach to the 
postures of death the louder is the laughter. 

These conclusions should give us pause. At its best comedy 
is a desperate thing. Comedy is never so comic as when the co- 
median teeters on the edge of death. We remember the 
hilarious moments when the comedian is caught up on the 
hour-hand of a clock high up on a skyscraper. He looks down, 
and there is Fifth Avenue below him, the people invisible 
and the automobiles streaming along like ants. How marvel- 
lous! How comic! The minute-hand creeps round and hooks 
onto the comedian's coat, and ever so slowly rips through the 
cloth. Then the comedian lets go his hold on the hour-hand. 
He falls two feet, but some miraculous threads of the coat 
caught on the minute-hand hold him up. He sighs with re- 
lief, adjusts his spectacles and gives a weak little smile. At 
that moment the clock-bell rings the hour and the heavy 
black hour-hand, jerking sharply, hits him over the head. 
He is knocked out. When he wakes up from his stupor he 
gazes at the automobiles in Fifth Avenue streaming below 
and smiles indulgently, happy to be in a place where there is 
such an excellent view of New York. Seeing a balloon high 
up over Washington Bridge, he makes gestures with his hands 


as though he were swimming, still smiling, but the smile 
freezes when the last threads of his coat-tail snap. Now he is 
dangling on the hour-hand. His spectacles fall off, and he 
watches them until they become no more than a speck in the 
grey air above Fifth Avenue. 

We find this kind of thing irresistibly comic. Why? Andre 
Malraux in La Condition Humaine tells the story of a small 
Chinese woman who slaps the face of her dead husband in 
bed, and while the old man's face wobbles grotesquely from 
side to side, the children are overcome with ringing laughter. 
What has happened? What is there about extreme danger or 
death which sometimes makes us laugh? There is very little 
difference between Harold Lloyd dangling on an hour-hand 
and a man dangling on a rope. He is as close to death as a 
man can be without dying. Is it possible that the mask of 
Charlie, which suggests Pan, also suggests a skull, and we 
laugh because of the very effrontery of this walking skeleton 
who has appeared from nowhere with no authority at all, 
except the authority which comes from the dead? It may be 
that the strange mask which Chaplin invented does represent 
something which exists at the very edge of life. "I am always 
aware that Charlie is playing with death," Chaplin told me 
once. "He plays with it, mocks it, thumbs his nose at it, but 
it is always there. He is aware of death at every moment of 
his existence, and he is terribly aware of being alive." 

I said something about the messenger in Aeschylus who 
announces: "I see the dead are killing one who lives," and 
suggested that Charlie is a kind of revenant, a pale ghost of 
the past, but instead of trying to kill the living, he attempts 
to give them more abundant life. 

"Yes, yes," Chaplin said. "There is death in him, and he is 
bringing life— more life. That is his only excuse, his only 
purpose. That is why people recognised him everywhere. 
They wanted the ghosts to come and bring them life. It's 
very strange, isn't it?" And saying that, he shook his head, 
pretending to be bewildered, sitting there at one o'clock in 


the morning on the stone steps of the house in Beverly Hills, 
the darkness thick on the hills. "You see," he went on, "the 
clown is so close to death that only a knife-edge separates 
him from it, and sometimes he goes over the border, but he 
always returns again. So in a way he is spirit— not real. And 
because he is always returning, that gives us comfort. We 
know he cannot die, and that's the best thing about him. I 
created him, but I am not him, and yet sometimes our paths 
cross. You know, it is a very enviable thing to be a clown." 
Chaplin has asked himself many times what the devil 
Charlie is up to. Who is this pale ghost-like creature, who has 
come from nowhere and will go nowhere because he is al- 
ways present in the air, the vagabond with a suicide's rope 
round his neck and the look of perplexity and power on his 
mask-like face? Chaplin has not solved the conundrums pre- 
sented by the presence of Charlie. In a sense all the films are 
an attempt to solve the single problem: Who is he? At dif- 
ferent times and different places he has talked superbly about 
the clown. He said once: "I walk onto the stage, serious, dig- 
nified, solemn, pause before an easy chair, spread my coat-tails 
with an elegant gesture and sit— on the cat." But in fact he 
never did sit on the cat, which was always to be found in his 
coat-pocket, smiling its Cheshire cat smile. There was a great 
deal of the conjuror in him. At another time he said that 
Charlie is like the ordinary man, baffled by the world: 

He does not cut a dashing figure as he blunders through a drab 
and commonplace existence. Heroism with him, except on great 
occasions, never soars to greater heights than his interviews with 
his landlord. His fortunes always drag a little behind his ex- 
pectations, and fulfilment lies always just out of reach. And as 
he shambles along with dwindling hopes he is smitten more than 
ever with a sense of his own unfitness and inadequacy. When he 
sees on the stage or screen the romantic hero who sweeps through 
life like a whirlwind, he feels a sense of inferiority and is de- 
pressed. Then he sees me shuffling along in my baffled and aim- 
less manner, and a spark of hope rekindles. Here is a man like 
himself, only more pathetic and miserable, with ludicrously im- 


possible clothes— in every sense a social misfit and failure. The 
figure on the screen has a protective air of mock dignity— takes 
the most outrageous liberties with people— and wears adversity 
as though it was a bouquet. In emergencies he even triumphs 
over those imposing characters whom the average man has al- 
ways visualised with so much awe. 

This is part of the story, but not the whole of it; and it 
leaves out the power of the character, his inexplicable rages, 
the fact that he is at once baffled and completely in command 
of himself, reverent and irreverent, and gives the impression 
so often of performing a kind of sacred rite. The mask is 
many masks, and many-sided. We shall never capture it en- 
tirely. But of some things we can be reasonably certain, and 
among them is the knowledge that something unusually real, 
terrible and beautiful occurred on the day when Chaplin 
wore the mask for the first time. We shall find hints towards 
an understanding of the mask in places where we least ex- 
pected them. 

Chapter Three 

The Delight Makers 

Unknown to Chaplin in 1913, there already 
existed in America clowns who curiously resembled the clown 
he invented in Venice. They had never appeared on the 
vaudeville stage or before cameras. They lived in isolated 
places, and went about their sacred fooling almost unknown 
to the white inhabitants of America, following traditional 
patterns handed down through the centuries. 

Some four hundred miles away from Venice, in the pueblos 
of Arizona and in a hundred other places in New Mexico 
and Nevada, there exist societies known as the koshare or 
"Delight Makers." In these societies the men paint their faces 
black and white, and their bodies with blue and white stripes, 
they wear their hair parted at the crown and turretted to re- 
semble rams' horns. At certain festivals during the year they 
are considered sacred. They may commit any improprieties 
and obscenities they like, and they may burlesque anyone. 
If any harm comes to them, the whole tribe believes it will 
suffer misfortune. Their disguise is supposed to make them 
invisible, though of course everyone sees them and knows 
they are there. They wear bunches of pine on their arms, and 
wear long black hanging breechcloths, and they never speak. 
They come mysteriously, when they are least expected. They 
may draw a mystic line of cornmeal on the ground: anyone 



who crosses the line must pay a forfeit. They are believed to 
have the power to make floods recede and rain fall; they in- 
crease fertility in man and plant. They are the spirits of the 
dead and the ancients, and they are also the ribald spirits of 
fertility, licensed jesters possessed of sacerdotal powers. With 
corn-husks in their hair and branches of evergreen in their 
belts, they frolic through the tribal territory, dancing with 
shuffling steps. They hold the tribe at their mercy. Yet they 
are entirely pleasant, and everyone is delighted when they 

These strange delightful clowns have a long history. The 
tribes can never remember a time when they did not exist. 
To call them the "Delight Makers" is to simplify their pur- 
pose. They are there to test the sacredness of the most sacred 
rituals, which they mimic, pressing close to the priest at the 
most solemn moments of the ceremonies, imitating him, con- 
fusing him, leaping out of nowhere to confound him with 
their animal presences. They employ all their considerable 
powers of cunning and insolence to destroy ruthlessly and 
deliberately, without hurting anyone and generally without 
touching anyone, the established order. They have another 
purpose, which is to remind everyone of his common hu- 

During a Roman triumph the victorious general in his 
chariot led by four pure white horses, accompanied by a long 
retinue of soldiers, priests and senators, attended by serving- 
boys and watched by the admiring citizens of Rome, would 
sometimes hear the words whispered into his ear by the pub- 
lic slave who stood behind him, holding a gold crown over 
the triumphator's head: "Look behind you, for you are mor- 
tal." The koshare fulfill the same function as the public slave 
and the hosts of young men and girls who danced round the 
sacred chariot, singing indecent hymns to the victorious gen- 

The koshare mimic ceremonies, but they also mimic indi- 
viduals. If they see a beautiful girl watching them, they may 


come up to her, mincing and swinging their hips, extending 
a condescending hand, mimicking her smile, her dignity, the 
trembling of her lips, the way she covers her lips with her 
hands, the way she walks away, the way she stands still, even 
the way she bursts out crying, until she is wholly at their 
friendly mercy. Sometimes they amuse themselves with cha- 
rades. At Taos on St Geronimo's day a greased pole with 
sheep and various other spoils is thrown up on the plaza. The 
"Delight Makers" come dancing to the pole, then they make 
sheep tracks in the dust at their feet, and then other "Delight 
Makers" appear. They follow the sheep tracks. They pretend 
they cannot understand why the tracks end at the pole. Then 
they see the sheep hanging high above them, and they aim 
little arrows at it, and start to climb the pole, but they all 
come tumbling to the ground. Afterwards they lower their 
heads and butt one another, incomprehensibly pretending to 
be bulls. 

So the "Delight Makers," weaving in and out among the 
crowds, demonstrate that we are all bound together in a sin- 
gle chain. They are the custodians of the sacred powers, 
medicine men, doctors, clowns. To show that they are im- 
mune from the frailties of the flesh, immortal, they will eat 
all manner of filth, including live puppies and stones and 
urine. Occasionally they will utter curses, as when they an- 
nounce: "Our daylight fathers, our daylight mothers, after 
so many days, eight days, on the ninth day you will copulate 
with rams." But generally their temper is quiet, and they do 
no harm unless they are themselves harmed. They have the 
powers that Pan possessed, and like Pan, the hoary goat-god, 
they are above all "deliverers." Not far from Nazareth, and 
in the time of Christ, there was a shrine to "Pan the De- 

The koshare are not the only sacred clowns among the 
Indians, but they are the most powerful. There are "Mud- 
heads," who wear knobbed soft masks and who seem to de- 
rive from the time of the great floods. They, too, grapple 


with the Plumed Serpent, summon the rain, perform strange 
indecent dances with bull-roarers in their hands. Then there 
are the Boogermen among the Cherokees, disease-healers who 
unexpectedly leap into the sick man's presence to startle him 
and so drive the evil spirits away. They shuffle their feet to 
a furious unaccented drumming, going a few paces forward, 
then stopping abruptly, then scuffling sideways, shaking their 
knees— the effect is exactly like a gross imitation of Charlie's 
dancing and limping walk, and like Charlie they wear baggy 
suits of burlap or old rags, and they are adepts at mimicry. 
During the dance, the music-master will call upon a Booger- 
man to answer a question, "Who are you?" or "Where do you 
come from?" The Boogerman must immediately reply with 
some ludicrous or obscene answer, then he must dance the 
part, and he does this in the most sprightly manner possible, 
deliberately breaking the rhythm of the shuffling steps. Fi- 
nally, having teased and tormented and mimicked everyone 
in sight, they disappear silently to some remote field where 
they can remove their disguise, for it would be unthinkable 
that anyone should see them in their own houses in disguise. 

The Boogermen possess little of the charm which is pos- 
sessed by the "Mud-heads," nor is their behavior so compli- 
cated. The "Mud-heads" who may make love realistically on 
the house-tops and who burlesque everything in sight, are 
more sacramental. Like the koshare their lunacy seems to 
spring from a divine source, and it is not to be wondered at 
that they conceal in their muddy knob-like ears the footprints 
of people. If they come begging, then food must be given to 
them; otherwise disaster would befall. If they laugh, you 
must be silent. They are fearful gods, and their masks have 
the simplicity of Charlie's: there is no more than the outline 
of a face, two holes for the eyes, a hole for the mouth. 

We come closer to Charlie's mask in the Night Chant of 
the Navajos, which lasts for nine nights and is attended by 
complex ceremonies, including the recital of 324 different 
songs which go to make up a long ritual poem. The cow- 


mask, the most sacred vestment used in these ceremonies, is 
formed of a single piece of stretched fabric with black eyes, 
a black spot for a muzzle or a mouth and two horns. The ef- 
fect of the juxtaposition of the eyes and muzzle bears a quite 
extraordinary resemblance to the mask of Charlie. Holiness 
springs from the mask, which is also reproduced in the sand- 
paintings. From it come, in a long, soft and unbroken stream, 
the tender recuperative forces of life, as the medicine men 

He stirs, he stirs, he stirs. 

Among the lands of dawning, he stirs, he stirs, 

The pollen of dawning, he stirs, he stirs. 

As for the Navajo clowns who appear in force on the last 
night of the Night Chant in celebration of the returning flow 
of life, they are the rowdiest and most boisterous of all. Noth- 
ing is sacred to them. Their comic play is as indelicate as the 
comic play of the ancient Greeks. All the men have a large 
bladder shaped like a penis under their breechcloths, and 
with their breechcloths removed, with clumps of grass pulp 
on their buttocks and a short twig crosswise between their 
buttocks they jump and hobble to the shouts and laughter of 
the crowded house-tops. This may not be amusing to our 
taste; it is not intended to amuse the Navajo onlookers. They 
have created a glorious drunken indecent shape of a hobbling 
clown as part of their ritual, and they are after larger rewards 
than amusement. The ceremonies are performed through 
eight long nights of hushed and reverent chanting; on the 
ninth day the dark fermenting wine is uncorked, and half 
the wine gushes out in the explosion. The Balinese have 
similar revels; so did the Aztecs, from whom the Pueblos 
seem to have borrowed many of the forms of revelry. We for- 
get that orgies of clowning were once considered a part of 
life, perhaps the most essential part, and we shall not under- 
stand the clowns until we realize they are gods. 

In an age when real laughter is rare, we regard the koshare 


and the Boogermen as strange survivals of some antique 
creed. They fulfill sacerdotal functions; we are not accus- 
tomed to see priests mocking the sacraments, and if we did 
we would call the priests insane or we would summon the 
police. Our priests are modest; they are in love with deco- 
rum; they are on the right side of the law. It was not always 
so. In the Middle Ages there were great feasts which the 
priests attended where the utmost license prevailed. They 
wore masks and monstrous faces at the hours of office. They 
danced in the choir dressed as women, panders and minstrels. 
They sang bawdy songs from the altar, and ate black pud- 
ding at the horn of the altar while the celebrant was saying 
mass. They played dice on the altar steps, and censed the 
church with puddings, sausages and old shoes, and thought 
little of running and leaping about the church naked or with 
slit breeches or following some naked, drunken carouser in 
procession through the town, and they would make the most 
indecent gestures and sing the most obscene songs. For five 
hundred years they did this. There were complaints from 
high authorities, but the Feast of Fools was celebrated at the 
New Year in a thousand churches of Christendom, and a 
mad missal, where all the accepted canons of taste were sol- 
emnly reversed, was employed on this feast-day, which cele- 
brated the New Year, the Circumcision and the happy folly 
of men. The Feast of Fools possessed a respectable ancestry. 
It can be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia and far be- 
yond, and it represented a deep and desperate need: the 
need to mock the things one loves best only in order to rev- 
erence them the more, the need to see the world in the light 
of laughter. The Feast provided a release from the conven- 
tions of worship; and the celebrant who attended mass on a 
day after a drinking bout below the high altar was not to be 
regarded as a man who had sold his soul to the devil. Indeed, 
his piety was all the greater now that he had seen the Christ 
through the eyes of laughter. 

Forbidden, the festum follorum was continually revived, 


and though the bishops generally took little part in it, the 
common priests were its chief participants, the most delighted 
of the delight-makers. The end of the seventeenth century 
saw the end of it as a deliberate part of the annual ritual of 
Christendom, but it survived in odd places— Mardi Gras in 
New Orleans is a happy marriage between the ancient Ro- 
man processional triumph and the Feast of Fools of the Mid- 
dle Ages, and if we would imagine the mediaeval feast, it is 
simple enough: we only have to imagine a wilder, a more 
roisterous Mardi Gras. 

All over the world religions have sanctified folly, but it 
was always a special kind of folly. There must be mockery 
in it, but the mockery must do no harm. There must be ob- 
scenity, but the obscenity is reserved for a single day or a 
single occasion: a licensed release from pent-up emotions. 
Somewhere there must be a clown in command, a dominus 
festij to ring the sacred bells and call upon the faithful to 
rejoice. There must be a deliberate reversal of the conven- 
tions: the high are laid low, the humble are elevated. There 
must be free wine flowing, and wreaths of roses on the fore- 
heads of the celebrants, and every man may address every 
woman, and every child must straddle a father's shoulders. 
Someone must play music, and everyone must dance in the 
village squares. The koshare and the mediaeval priests at 
the Feast of Fools were performing the same human function; 
and in our own day this function has been performed by 
Chaplin and W. C. Fields and perhaps three others. 

Today, the glinting wisecrack has taken the place of the 
salty humor of the past. In the modern radio auditorium you 
find the cruellest of recent inventions— the man who raises 
his arm and tells you when to laugh. "How are you?" says 
Groucho Marx. "So you come from Wichita Falls? Well, well. 
Fell in the falls, eh!" The bright mechanical laughter follows 
immediately, and ceases when the hand falls. The manip- 
ulated radio audience and the manipulated tape are putting 
an end to laughter, and encouraging us to become a race of 


liars, or automatons, or worse. The radio audience laughs 
for the same reason that the mouth of Pavlov's dog watered. 
No institutions are mocked; all must be praised; the wise- 
cracks jump on one another's heels; the harsh voice is a ma- 
chine working with mechanical precision. More terrible than 
the wars is the end of laughter. 

The art of pantomime is dying, and when Chaplin dies it 
may be altogether dead. There was a time not very long ago 
when great gusts of earthy laughter smacked against the 
vaudeville stage; in those days there was froth on the beer, 
not pretty little bubbles. So it was with the Keystone com- 
edies. There was nothing smart, nervous or jaded in them; 
no one was trying feverishly to be funny; the fun lay all 
around them, and they had only to pick it up. In those days 
the humor was rich and gay and mocking and atrociously im- 
pudent, and it was all these things because there was a human 
need for them, because a man cannot live without the grace 
of laughter, because he dies in the flesh if his flesh does not 
laugh with mockery and delight in the world around him. 
We used to wonder why Fields and Chaplin held such power 
over us. We need not have wondered. They were, and are, 
a part of our need. 

Chapter Four 


JDut the mystery of Charlie is not solved by 
an appeal to fooling. The priests of the Middle Ages who 
performed a sacrament in reverse and censed the churches 
with puddings, sausages and old shoes were fulfilling an es- 
sential function: the function of preserving man's humanity 
and earthiness; but though there is fooling in Charlie and 
he does not disdain the puddings, the sausages or the old 
boots, and he would be an admirable performer at the festum 
follorum, we are conscious that the strange creature whose 
eyes are almonds and whose mouth resembles the mouth of a 
tragic mask, is closer to the koshare than to the mediaeval 
priestly buffoons. Like the koshare he has a special kind of 
walking, is clothed with a kind of dancing invisibility and 
in some way derives his strength from the spirits of the dead 
or of the ancients. There were no white masks at the festum 
follorum, no ceremonies of lighthearted mockery. In me- 
diaeval Europe the mockery was cruel and blunt-edged, a 
deliberate abasement following the exaltations of the church. 
We remember that the koshare were abstemious and when 
they were obscene, it was with a devilish immediacy, wag- 
ging their members as they danced round the priests. Some- 
thing of that immediacy was lacking in the mediaeval 
carnival, which tended to substitute horseplay with chamber- 


pots for the naked obscenities which are the most comic of 
all. These mediaeval fetes were essentially bourgeois; it is 
unthinkable that the same fetes were performed in the vil- 

To understand Charlie we must follow the clues wherever 
we can find them. They must lead us inevitably into some of 
the remote places of the human spirit, among the towers of 
pride and the valleys of human misery. We cannot isolate the 
comic spirit and hold it up to the light. We cannot pin it 
into a museum case. But it is possible that if we could see it 
steadily for a moment, or thrust through some of the veils 
where it hides, we might find some of the reasons why it is 
worth while to be alive, for tragedy offers only the most ex- 
cellent reasons why it would be better to be dead. There is 
a sense in which the genuine spirit of comedy is the lightning- 
flash which alone illuminates our down-at-heels world. "A 
joke, sometimes even a bad joke," said Christopher Fry re- 
cently, "can reflect the astonishing light that we live in. In- 
deed, laughter itself is a great mystery of the flesh, as though 
flesh were entertaining something other than itself; some- 
thing vociferous but inarticulate." 

The philosophers, of course, have set their hearts at con- 
triving a solution to the enigma, and Chaplin has remarked, 
with some authority, that since philosophers are usually un- 
able to distinguish between a good joke and a bad one, they 
are in no position to pass judgment. "In laughter," according 
to Bergson, "we always find an avowed intention to humiliate 
and consequently to correct our neighbor." Bergson's theory 
has a respectable ancestry. Hobbes wrote in Leviathan: "The 
passion of laughter is nothing else but a sudden glory arising 
from a sudden conception of some eminence in ourselves, by 
comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own 
formerly." It would have been simpler and more accurate if 
he had said only: "The passion of laughter is nothing else 
but a sudden glory." 

Mr Al Capp, in discussing Chaplin, has recently revived 


the same dismal theory, which does not explain why we laugh 
when we are in bed with a girl or when we are just plain 
happy. Laughter, we are told, is only the extreme of smiling, 
and smiling is simply the baring of teeth. It may be so; but 
when Dante saw all the radiance of heaven flooding from 
Beatrice's smile, we should be under no illusions concerning 
Beatrice. She is divine; she is not an animal baring her teeth. 

But there are some philosophers who have written well and 
learnedly concerning the spirit of comedy. Among them was 
S0ren Kierkegaard, whose sense of the urgency and anguish 
of being a Christian did not prevent him from enjoying 

In one of those lyrical fragments of reminiscences which 
Kierkegaard introduced into his most prophetical works 
there is an account of a clown called Beckmann he was ac- 
customed to see at the Konigstadter Theatre at Copenhagen. 
Beckmann was a prodigious clown who could play in the 
most gentle manner possible and could also give way to the 
most frightful rages. He was like Mediterranean weather, 
now wanton warmth, now the sickening storm of a sirocco. 
A fat man with a trailing mustache and a devil-may-care 
manner, he usually portrayed a travelling tinker; and the 
gaunt hunchbacked philosopher, sitting in his favorite seat 
in the royal circle, saw something of himself in the actor. 
Beckmann could make you see things which your reason told 
you could not possibly exist. He did not walk onto the 
boards; he seemed to have been there from the beginning 
of time. You would see a travelling tinker, and that was Beck- 
mann; but the surprising, the beautiful, the inexplicable 
thing was that there had suddenly appeared on the empty 
stage a whole imaginary village, exactly as though Beckmann 
had tossed the village out of his cloak when he was dusting 
it or searching for fleas. You saw the people emerging from 
their houses and greeting the tinker, you saw the dust, the 
pathways, the river winding beside the village smithy, the 
crowds of children gathered at his heels, and it was all con- 


jured out of a wink, a gesture, the way he strolled and grim- 
aced and careened across the stage, a magician who could 
invent a world with a crook of a finger, a man without char- 
acter who could assume the character of his inventions. 

There was something amorphous about Beckmann which 
put Kierkegaard in mind of the Greek gods, who could 
change their appearance at will. He noted that Beckmann's 
contours were masterly, though the shading was weak. It 
hardly mattered, for there was no time to watch for shading 
or depth. Incredible forces were bottled up in Beckmann, 
whose rages were superb: 

I call him the Incognito, whose body is the home of the crack- 
brained, insane devil of comedy, a devil who will break out of 
his chains at any moment and destroy everything in berserk fury. 
As for his dancing, it is incomparable. He sings a verse, then he 
dances, dances so furiously that at any moment you imagine he 
will break his neck. The ritual of the dance offers him no solace. 
He is beside himself with rage, yet his wild laughter has nothing 
at all to do with the usual comic foolery. Like Baron Munch- 
hausen, his soul achieves perfection only when he takes himself 
by the neck and throws himself into a delirious abandon of joy. I 
have said that anyone can taste these joys, but it is only a genius, 
working in the name and with the authority of genius, who can 
play with them. Unless genius is present, the result is disastrous. 

There was Beckmann, but there was also Grobecker, whose 
voice was harsh and piercing where Beckmann's possessed, 
even in its rages, a human warmth. Grobecker was sentimen- 
tal, but it was a cold sentimentality. He attracted attention 
to himself, not to the world he created, and his forte lay in 
his absurd postures. Once he took the part of a steward wait- 
ing for the arrival of his masters. Grobecker decided that on 
their return from the city nothing would please them so 
much as a fete-champetre, a charming introduction to the 
life of the country. He could not bring the peasants to life; 
he could only bring himself to life as the obedient steward, 
waiting to serve his master. But how? He decided to disguise 
himself as Mercury, attaching wings to his feet and decorat- 


ing his head with a helmet; and then standing on one foot, 
with one foot outstretched behind him, leaning forward with 
an idiotic smile of greeting, he made a speech of welcome to 
his masters the moment they came within earshot. The ex- 
traordinary thing about Grobecker was the cold calculating 
precision of his mimicry, the clear outlines, the sense that he 
was performing according to rigorous laws, and above all his 
detachment. "He was intelligence personified," Kierkegaard 
commented, "and at the same time he was a sentimentalist 
whose sentiments led him into a state of ecstacy. In that mood 
of cold detachment he showed his mastery to perfection, 
though he lacked Beckmann's fermenting flame. Nevertheless 
it would be untrue to say that he was not a genius: he was a 
genius, and worthy of his calling." 

Kierkegaard possessed the utmost respect for these clowns. 
All his life he was bewitched by the spirit of comedy. He at- 
tended the theatre regularly and continually commented on 
the performances. It seemed to him that the comic stage with 
its paradoxes and absurdities, its excesses, its eternal dilem- 
mas, was quite extraordinarily close to the explosive world 
of theology where he was at home. It was absurd to be alive, 
it was absurd to die, and most of all it was absurd to be a 
Christian. Credo quia absurdum. Tertullian's phrase haunted 
him. He examined "the category of the absurd" tranquilly, 
always walking on a tightrope and always in danger of falling, 
inventing his terminology as he went along because no one 
had ever explored such a landscape before. Jesus said that 
salvation is found only by putting everything one has in 
jeopardy. That, too, was absurd, and yet it was true. Men 
spent their whole lives on the edge of the abyss "suspended 
over 70,000 fathoms," and that was absurd and wonderful 
beyond belief. He was not the first to note that the universe 
is essentially comic, but he was the first to give depth and 
precision to the divine absurdity in the world of faith. He 
told the story of the Old Testament princess who mysteri- 
ously murdered her husbands one by one, and how in the 


end the one who had greatest faith was not murdered by her, 
but instead lived tranquilly with her to the end of his days. 
Then he set the story against a universal background and 

A purely human courage is required to renounce the temporal 
in order to gain the eternal. . . . And yet it must be glorious to 
get the princess . . . and the knight of resignation who does not 
say it is a deceiver. . . . The only happy one is the heir apparent 
to the finite, whereas the knight of resignation is a stranger. By 
my strength I am able to give up the princess, but by my own 
strength I am not able to get her again, for I am employing all 
my strength to be resigned. But by faith ... by faith I shall get 
her in virtue of the absurd. 

The sense of paradox which informs so much of Kierke- 
gaard's writings was not so much the result of his natural 
cleverness as of his humility. Before the paradoxes of life he 
stands astonished, devout, amazingly childlike. "Paradox," 
he said once, "is a passion of thought, and the philosopher 
without a sense of paradox resembles a lover without passion 
—a foolish fellow. The highest power of every passion is to 
desire its own destruction, and so it is the highest passion of 
understanding to desire a stumbling-block. The greatest par- 
adox of the mind is the mind's desire to discover something 
it cannot think." In this sense all philosophy becomes a tra- 
peze act, a joyful exploration by the trapeze artist of the 
heights of the tent. What if he falls? What if he hears the 
clown's mocking laughter? So irony enters the game, and 
philosophy itself becomes "a dance on the rim," played by a 
dancer with the courage of a highwayman who, when the 
cart has left him dangling, kicks off his shoes in a final ges- 
ture of invincibility. 

It is fashionable to decry Kierkegaard and his successors, 
to lament their irony, the complexities of their paradoxes, 
the astonishing contours of the landscapes they explored so 
brilliantly. But though we decry them, we cannot put them 
away. The world has caught up with them, and the paradoxes 


which once seemed daring are in danger of becoming com- 
monplaces. Kafka, the most methodical as he was the most 
daring of Kierkegaard's successors, invented a character K. 
who is partly Kafka himself desperately trying to escape from 
his own prophetical visions, but he is also Kierkegaard. He 
is also Charlie. 

Like Kierkegaard, Kafka was haunted by the paradox of 
faith. The Castle, which lay beyond the mind's reaches, was 
the source of authority. It sent its messengers to the earth, 
held its courts of judgment, paraded its beauty over the whole 
landscape, but the King remained invisible and unapproach- 
able. One could believe in the King, but it stretched the faith 
to the uttermost to believe in his messengers who sometimes 
stood in judgment on the people of the earth. They held 
their courts in abandoned warehouses. If you examined them 
closely, you saw that they did not know what they were do- 
ing. They dressed in a peculiar fashion. Under their immense 
beards you would sometimes see their badges of authority. 
Were they policemen, or were they priests? Kafka did not 
know. He could only report what he had seen. When K. is 
finally arrested and led out to a deserted quarry where his 
throat is cut according to the proper ceremonies, he notes 
that the men arresting him are paunchy, jovial in their un- 
communicative way and resemble ham actors. All through 
the strange divided world in which Kafka moves, we are 
aware of a resemblance between the world of the Castle and 
the world of the Keystone cops. Kafka enlarges on the di- 
vided world, subtly dissects it, proves its incoherence and 
patiently draws the portrait of K. as he attempts to make 
sense of the messengers or the invitations he occasionally 
receives from the Castle, those invitations which are always 
writen in enigmatic language or in a code where the key is 
unknown. Yet all through the drama K. behaves with a kind 
of brooding insouciance, always gentle, always hoping for the 

The poet Heinrich von Kleist never thought it worth his 


while to hope for the best. He saw himself engaged in a fight 
doomed from the beginning. But before dying by his own 
hand, he wrote the most penetrating of all the short stories 
which have been written about the clown. In this story, called 
Concerning the Marionette Theatre, he simply told a num- 
ber of anecdotes, beginning with an encounter with a friend 
who had long studied the art of the marionettes. The man 
was a successful dancer; he admitted that he learned his art 
from the puppets, with their little pellets of lead in feet and 
hands. The puppets possessed a kind of reality denied to 
human dancers. As for the mechanic who held the strings, 
he must be himself more than dancer, he must surrender 
wholly to the dance of puppets, find his way into their souls— 
yes, into their souls, he says. Heinrich von Kleist finds him- 
self wondering whether he is talking with a madman, but 
no, he looks very calm and he has the air of a man speaking 
of things he knows. ''You must understand that the man who 
holds the strong strings is very much like a god," the dancer 
says. "And look what happens. No mortal man can ever reach 
the grace achieved by a dancing doll. One becomes a god by 
holding the strings, for only a god can deal with nature in 
these fields of activity, and when he does this, why, the two 
ends of the world's ring reach out for one another." 

That holy moment, when artistry achieves its greatest per- 
fection, is discussed at length, and then Kleist goes on to 
discuss another story altogether. It is a very strange story, 
and concerns an immense tame bear which a Russian noble- 
man kept in his house. The nobleman was known as a 
magnificent swordsman. Many were puzzled by his accom- 
plishment. One day, it was learned that he exercised with his 
sword every day with the bear, which possessed a wonderful 
sense of rhythm, and with a single cuff of its great paws was 
able to parry all attacks. The bear's defences were perfect. 
It possessed the pure grace of art, the knowledge of the 
rhythms appropriate for defence. Why is this? "It seems to 
me that the reasons are clear," the nobleman said. "The bear 


behaved instinctively, without using its reason. In the world 
as it is, as the power of the mind grows dull and weakens, 
then grace comes forward, more radiant, more dominating. 
Think, then, of two intersecting lines which cross and then 
go onwards to infinity, and beyond, but suddenly, encoun- 
tering another plane, they find themselves once more at the 
point of intersection. Or imagine yourself gazing in a con- 
cave mirror, where your image vanishes to infinity and then 
appears beside you. In exactly the same way, when self -con- 
sciousness has passed from you and made its way into the 
infinite distances, grace is acquired, and this quality of grace, 
as it appears in the human body, possesses the greatest purity 
when there is either no self-consciousness or else an infinite 
self-consciousness: either the mechanical doll or the god." 

In effect, Kleist is saying that the greatest dances can take 
place only when consciousness is at vanishing point or at its 
height. The doll and the god between them have the mastery 
of art. There is a perversity in the dance. Sometimes the doll 
appears, sometimes the god; then they vanish, and all we see 
is the crass human body attempting to imitate art. 

Perhaps the heart of the mystery lies here. We shall never 
know for certain why we are so deeply moved when we watch 
a puppet-show or a ballet. There are times when we watch 
Les Sylp hides when the dancers seem to acquire their life 
and movement only from the music, then suddenly the music 
ceases and they have the appearance of gods. It is the same 
with Charlie. There are times when he seems to walk down 
the road as though there was a mechanical engine inside 
him, a puppet with a clockwork motor. Then the sound of 
the motor is drowned and you hear the rage of a god. 

Chapter Five 

The White-Faced Clown 

1 1 o one knows where the white-faced clowns 
came from. According to the Dionysiaca of the poet Nonnus, 
the Titans were the first whose faces were painted white, per- 
haps as a sign of their servitude as gods who had fallen from 
heaven. There is a ghostliness about the color white which 
suggests more than ghosts; some shuddering horror lurks in 
the color we call "dead white," as Melville observed when 
he came to write the chapter called "The Whiteness of the 
Whale" and spoke of midnight seas of milky whiteness, pale 
horses, shrouds, frosts and windrowed snows as though all of 
them contained some secret poison, were covered with the 
devil's spittle. "Not yet have we solved the incantation of this 
whiteness," he wrote, and hinted that the secret of life lay 
in some white thing shaped like a whale. As for the clowns 
they seem to have been white from the beginning, perhaps 
with fear at the world around them, and perhaps after all 
white is no more than the color corresponding to "being 

There are gaps in our knowledge of the history of the 
clown. When we first come upon the ancient Greek clown 
he is already complex, his heart set not on buffoonery but 
on gentle intimidation. He affects to be a fool in order to 
outwit the braggarts, but he is not a fool. Instead, he gives 


the impression of being a remote and fastidious intellectual, 
but it was not always so. Under that mask, as J. A. K. Thom- 
son observes in his study of the ironical man, there is "some- 
one far more elemental, simple, grotesque and pitiful." At 
any rate clowning in ancient Greece seems to have begun and 
ripened in the eternal contest between the alazon (the im- 
postor) and the eiron (the cunning one), with the buffoon 
standing by as a kind of laughing chorus to their play. The 
truth is, of course, that we know too little. We do not know 
how the eiron developed, and what origins he had, but we 
have a right to guess that he was always split across the mid- 
dle, pitiful and fastidious from the beginning. Socrates was 
accused of irony, and some clue to the behavior of the ironi- 
cal man is given by Alcibiades when he discusses Socrates in 
the Symposium. "He is the satyr without and the god within," 
says Alcibiades. "Listen to him talk. Why, his language is 
like the rough skins of the satyrs— nothing but talk of pack- 
asses and smiths and cobblers and curriers, and he is always 
repeating the same things. But remember that our statues of 
the satyrs are hollow, and then you will perceive that Socrates 
has a rough surface but within him are the divine images." 
This was only another way of saying that Socrates looked and 
often behaved like the great god Pan. 

We see the face of Pan again in the chief character of the 
Atellane farces performed by the citizens of Atella in Cam- 
pania and transplanted in the third century B.C. to Rome. 
His name was Maccus, and he was known as the albus mimus, 
the white mime. He had no horns, but he had a goat's beard 
and a goat's muzzle. He was quick, witty, impertinent, iron- 
ical and cruel, the enemy of the boastful shrewish Bucco, and 
he handed down his shape and disposition to the Commedia 
dell' Arte where he appears under the name of Pulcinella. 
By this time he had become more complex than ever, so bril- 
liant in his cunning and so animal in his lusts that he had to 
be divided into two separate characters with the same name. 
It was explained that the "upper" Pulcinella was born in the 


hills of Benevento, the "lower" Pulcinella in the valleys. One 
wonders why. Pan had possessed the same attributes, but no 
one ever suggested that he was born in two separate places 
at once. In time Pulcinella became Punch, but as we shall see 
later he was still the great god Pan, living in two worlds even 
when he descended to being a puppet-show. Finally, one 
small part of Pulcinella, and that the better part, was torn 
away to form the image of Pedrolino, whom we know as 
Pierrot. Here the rough outlines of Pulcinella were softened, 
and though they wore .the same costume as a sign of their 
identity, Pedrolino never allowed himself to speak, never 
employed his cunning to the uttermost, and he alone of the 
Commedianti dell' Arte had a face that was completely white. 
From Pedrolino-Pierrot Chaplin acknowledges the descent 
of Charlie. He did not of course deliberately assume the mask 
and behavior of Pierrot. "In the early days I was interested 
in getting a job," he said later. "I was after fifty dollars a 
week. It was only later on that I saw that everything I was 
trying to do was in some way derived from the Commedia 
dell' Arte. Charlie was a shabby Pierrot. The more I studied 
the Commedia dell' Arte, the more I realised that Charlie 
was in existence long before I invented him." 

Pierrot, of course, took many forms. He could be senti- 
mentalised almost out of existence. Under the name of 
Gilles he decorates the canvases of Watteau, but Gilles is 
hardly more than a gentle wraith, Pierrot at the vanishing 
point. There was sterner stuff in Pagliaccio, who also de- 
rived from Pedrolino. He, too, was simple, awkward and 
heedless, and like Pulcinella he wore a mask covering all of 
his face except his mouth and chin, but the mask was painted 
white, and he had, as Pierrot had, the virtues of a tumbler 
and of a savage. The ancient ambiguity runs through him 
also. He was lightfooted, graceful, gentle, but suddenly he 
would break out into ribald laughter and bawdry, and Mon- 
taigne complained of the savagery of his grimaces while ad- 
miring the delicacy of his acrobatics. The early Pierrot was 


all effeminate delicacy and sweetness; it was of this stupid 
Pierrot that eighteenth century France sang: 

Au clair de la lune, 
Mon ami Pierrot, 
Prete-moi ta plume 
Pour ecrire un mot; 

and the song demonstrated that Pierrot was hardly more than 
the complaisant confidant of the lovers, the butt of Harle- 
quin, the ingenious and beneficent nurse in male costume. 
He was the peasant prinked up to serve his masters, always 
loyal, never asking for more money, devoutly humble until 
his masters' backs were turned, when he would mimic them 
to his heart's content. Columbine marries Harlequin, and 
Pierrot contents himself with a few discreet tears, a witty 
jest, a little giggle. He grew with the times. Gradually the 
tears vanished, and he became the emblematic figure of the 
giggle, the man cast in adversity who laughs triumphantly 
at fate. At this point one of the great master-strokes occurred: 
his sleeves lengthened, so that he appeared to be without 
hands, and those long flapping sleeves, like the wings of an 
ungainly bird, conveyed his emotions. In the early plays he 
spoke. Now he had no need to speak: it was enough if he 
raised a protesting sleeve, smiled, shook his poor dumb head, 
uttered the faintest of protesting sighs. Poor Pierrot! Every- 
one loved him. Columbine on her way to be married would 
kiss him tenderly, even fondle him, while a blissful smile 
crossed the face of Pierrot; then it was enough to leave him 
alone on the empty stage, the candles of the footlights shin- 
ing up at him as he gazed straight at the audience, while a 
thousand passions and frustrations marched across his face. 
He begged for sympathy, and no one ever received so much; 
and what Columbine refused, the audience offered in double 
measure. Out of this Pierrot emerged the wonderfully dis- 
tinctive Pierrot invented around 1835 by one of the greatest 
clowns who ever lived. 


Jean-Gaspard Deburau was born in 1796, somewhere in 
Bohemia. His father was a soldier of fortune who came orig- 
inally from Amiens; his mother seems to have been Czech. 
Part of his childhood was spent near Warsaw, and he some- 
times spoke of himself as a Pole. He was the youngest of five 
children. He might never have become a clown at all if his 
father had not fallen on evil times. There was hope of a liv- 
ing on an ancestral property in the north of France, but how 
to reach France? To live, the father turned himself and his 
five children into tightrope walkers, and so clowning and 
tightrope-walking they made their way back to France, two 
young girls, three boys, the old soldier and his wife. The 
ancestral property turned out to be a half-acre of briars near 

There followed lean years. It was winter when they reached 
Amiens, and there was something wintry about Deburau to 
the end. For eighteen francs the father bought a pack-horse, 
placed his family in the panniers, and they journeyed from 
village to village, from town to town. The boys concentrated 
on walking the tightrope piggy-back. Jean-Gaspard was usu- 
ally ill, often stumbled, hated tightrope walking and was 
remarkable only for his extraordinary leanness. No flesh 
grew on him. His second name was Baptiste: he was as 
spindly as the desert-wandering saint. In Paris, where they 
settled for a while, Jean-Gaspard was forgotten, left at home 
when the others acted, given crumbs for comfort, while his 
brothers and sisters acquired new clothes, good food and 
noms du theatre. 

Occasionally, dressed in rags, he followed them to the thea- 
tre, and years later he recounted how, when he was perform- 
ing in an act known as "the Egyptian Pyramid," he was given 
the topmost position. His brothers were drunk, and his broth- 
ers formed the feet of the pyramid. The pyramid was six or 
seven men high, and when the drunken brothers collapsed, 
the boy was thrown headlong. He landed with a crash, broke 
twelve bones, and lay bleeding. The audience rocked with 


applause. At another time, when they were in Constanti- 
nople, he climbed on top of a ladder and looked through the 
veil which concealed the watching concubines of the Sultan. 
No one noticed him, otherwise he would have been thrown 
into a sack and drowned in the Bosphorus. When Deburau 
came to maturity, the distant vision of the sultan's odalisques, 
the briar-patch in Amiens, the fall from the pyramid, the 
long years of wandering through France, Germany and Italy, 
all these had their proper place in his characterization of 
the part of Pierrot, the creature of invincible sang-froid who 
seemed always about to open a curtain upon an enchanting 
display of amorous women, who suggested with all the arts 
of mimicry that such displays were for the asking, and then 
with a little flap of his empty sleeves showed that he was still 
lying in the briar-patch. He was gay with a desperate gaiety, 
the master of acrobatic horseplay and a dancer of eccentric 
genius. He had only to make a couple of steps on the stage 
for everyone in the audience to be aware of his complex 
mood, and more wonderful than anything else was the strange 
mingling of extreme joy and extreme sadness which streamed 
from his face. 

But this was for the future. Deburau was thirty-four be- 
fore he first acted on the stage in the Funambules Theatre 
in the Boulevard du Temple in the part of Pierrot. This 
part was previously played by Felix Charigny, who had ac- 
cepted the existing tradition. Deburau changed it entirely, 
beginning with the costume. He removed the conical hat 
and replaced it with a black velvet skull-piece. He removed 
the immense ruffle entirely, saying that it threw too many 
shadows on his face. He wore a loose, ill-fitting white cotton 
coat, white cotton trousers and white shoes with buckles, the 
only decoration being the pompoms he wore down the mid- 
dle of his coat. He was now Pierrot reduced to its essentials 
and stripped for action. Previously, Pierrot had been a com- 
paratively minor figure. Deburau, who wrote his own mimes, 
made him the central character, giving him that air of des- 


peration which was his own, for often enough he had been 
near suicide and all his life he was poverty-stricken. Once, 
he was about to cut his own throat when he overheard some 
people in a cafe discussing the art of the great tragedian 
Talma, and the thought that it was possible to become an 
artist had kept him alive. But the battle was waged every 
night on the boards of the Funambules Theatre. 

This theatre was no larger and no better than the little 
tumble-down theatres in the East End of London called the 
Penny Gaffs. Wedged between two other theatres, it never 
seated more than two or three hundred people. The patrons 
were generally poor workmen, who hung their coats over 
the gallery rails and smelt of garlic and stamped their feet, 
loud-mouthed and jubilant. Deburau played for them, not 
for the famous and fastidious men of the world who oc- 
casionally occupied the boxes in the avant-scene. Balzac, 
George Sand, Baudelaire, Gerard de Nerval, Theophile 
Gautier, a host of others equally celebrated, attended fre- 
quently, and sometimes afterwards Deburau would welcome 
them in his little underground dressing-room, so dank that 
mushrooms grew on the bare walls, but it was not for them 
that he created the role of Pierrot. He played for the people 
and was of the people. He drew his strength from them. He 
knew their joys, and he could provoke them to outbursts of 
terrifying joy or grief. The simple folk of the quartier saw 
him as one of themselves, only larger and more luminous; 
and like them he saw that victory would come only when 
the last was first, as in Cinderella. At no time in his life did 
he earn more than fifty francs a week. 

What was the secret of Deburau? Partly, of course, it was 
the secret of intimacy, which all great actors possess, his 
power of communicating across that vast abyss which sep- 
arates a performer from his audience, but many remarked 
on the fascination that derived from the sense of danger 
which surrounded him. When, in one of his most famous 
comedies, his head was cut off, the groan that travelled 


through the audience was frightening. There was something 
wholly reckless about him. "The good comedian," said Ric- 
coboni, the authority on the Commedia delV Arte, "marches 
in the middle of the road; the great comedian wanders along 
the edge of a precipice." Deburau wandered along precipices, 
and everyone in the audience was attempting to prevent his 

Like Chaplin, he invented plays which were largely auto- 
biographical. He told his own life sub specie aeternae corn- 
mediae. The briar-patch, the visions of a hungry boy as he 
presses his nose against shop-windows, the donkey loaded 
with panniers which later died of hunger, the miseries of 
acrobats, the girls who offer their love and then run away, 
these were the staples of his comedy. He begins one play 
as a hungry clown in front of a pastry-cook's shop. At last, 
summoning all his strength, sniffing eagerly, he enters the 
shop, but at that moment the shop turns into a milliner's 
establishment; the pastry shop has suddenly swung to the 
other side of the road. Pierrot is offered bonnets. He refuses, 
runs to the pastry-cook's, and once again finds himself in the 
presence of the milliner. The shops perform a fantastic 
chasse-croisee , with Pierrot running backwards and forwards 
between them, his tongue hanging out. Then he does what 
Charlie does in the same circumstances. He tries gentleness, 
coaxing, pleading. He becomes exceptionally sweet-tempered, 
almost coy, but still the shops swing round and still the pas- 
tries are out of his reach. There comes a time when he snaps, 
becomes incoherent, begins to rave. He offers to fight every- 
body. The shops are still wheeling round him, he clamps 
his hand to his head, pretends to be thinking calmly, but 
suddenly he erupts, making his attack in a direction no one 
had anticipated. With a dozen broomsticks in his hands he 
holds off his embattled opponents, and the first scene ends 
with Pierrot flaying everyone, even the beautiful Leandre 
whom he can no longer recognise— in those days the broom- 
stick was the equivalent of a custard pie with the added 


advantage that it could suggest the ultimate of indecencies. 

The first scene described Pierrot's hunger; when we see 
him again he is dressed in the clothes of a wandering moun- 
tebank, beating a drum as if he wanted to burst it. The vil- 
lagers dance, but suddenly it is the villagers who go berserk, 
for Pierrot's drumming has sent them mad. This drumming 
has the effect of Pan's shriek in the woodlands. The villagers 
run madly away, and leave not a penny behind for poor 
Pierrot. Miserably, Pierrot continues his wanderings. An 
English milord offers to let Pierrot do his laundry. Pierrot 
assents. He has come to the stage where he will do anything, 
even the laundry of a red-headed Englishman. He begins to 
work. Gradually he becomes infuriated with his work. The 
clothes are ugly, they smell too much, who is this Englishman 
who can make him work? When the Englishman returns to 
ask how the work is progressing, Pierrot indignantly throws 
him into the tub. Himself dirty, Pierrot attempts to enter 
a bath-house, but he can only find a bath-house reserved for 
women. He disguises himself with a bonnet and skirt, jumps 
with joy at the thought of the naked odalisques who will 
soon be his companions in the bath, but the women penetrate 
his disguise, invite him in, say the sweetest imaginable things 
to him, and secretly arrange that the water should be scalding 
hot. Pierrot, without clothes and red as a lobster, is thrown 
headlong into the street. 

The beauty of Deburau's acting lay, then, in his noncha- 
lance, his simple joy in defeat, his sudden rages, the little 
scamperings of the feet which announced his momentary 
triumphs. There was a prodigious grace in him. Jules Janin, 
who wrote his biography, spoke of him as "an actor without 
words, without passion and almost without countenance; 
one who says everything, expresses everything, mocks every- 
thing; capable of playing, without uttering a word, all the 
comedies of Moliere; a man informed of all the follies of his 
day, and who reproduces them to the life." Baudelaire de- 
scribed him as "pale as the moon, mysterious as silence, sup- 


pie and mute as the serpent, straight and tall as the gallows." 
Even while he was alive he belonged to legend. 

As he grew older, Deburau suffered one misfortune after 
another. The damp dressing-room made him tubercular, and 
in addition he suffered from asthma. He fell through a trap- 
door, which opened too quickly, and cracked his head. The 
stage manager came forward, explained the accident and 
asked the audience to leave the theatre, but at that moment 
Deburau appeared, smiling his odd smile, mysteriously si- 
lent, and without any movement of his lips, with a single 
gesture, he conveyed that the play would go on. When George 
Sand, who was present at the performance, having seen the 
look of sickness on his face when he was standing in the 
wings and how suddenly the look had disappeared, wrote to 
congratulate him, he answered with a letter saying that she 
had exaggerated his accomplishments, and added: ''My pen 
is like my voice on the stage, but my heart is like my coun- 
tenance, and I pray you will accept its sincere expression." 
"My heart is like my countenance." In such simple phrases 
did he describe himself more accurately than the writers who 
wrote so learnedly about him. 

Deburau died of asthma at the age of fifty. Shortly before 
his death he played in one of his favorite comedies, Les 
Noces de Pierrot. The little candle-lit Funambules Theatre 
was crowded with well-wishers. The curtain rose slowly. 
There was Deburau in the center of the stage with a pretty 
girl on his arm, a flower in his buttonhole. Ordinarily, he 
would have executed one of those dramatic little dances 
which often began his plays, a queer high-flinging mixture 
of the cancan and the sedate dances of the Directoire. Some- 
one shouted out for the dance, but the voice was drowned. 
Instead, very slowly, forgetting the dance, Deburau walked 
to the back of the stage and the comedy began now, as it 
always did, with a kiss bestowed on Columbine. There was 
silence throughout the play. In the end there was an ovation, 
and when he appeared at the stage door he still wore his 


clown's costume and the flower in his buttonhole. He was 
dead in less than a week. 

With the death of Deburau there were some who said that 
all clowning was dead. Deburau's delicacy and insolence, his 
terrible power over the audience, the way he would crane 
forward over the footlights and hold them all in his hollow 
hand, his extraordinary beauty, these had perished, but 
other clowns arose to follow in his footsteps. His son took 
his place. Paul Legrand, Louis Rouffe, the great Severin who 
added provencal fire to the original, and who died barely 
twenty years ago, these followed, and all of them spoke of 
Deburau with reverence, and all imitated him. More recently 
Jean-Louis Barrault, having made Jean-Gaspard luminously 
familiar in Les En f ants du Paradis, has set himself the task 
of inventing him afresh. 

Pierrot did not die. For a few more years, until Baron 
Haussmann's workmen pulled down the Boulevard du Tem- 
ple to make way for the Boulevard Voltaire, the small patch- 
work theatre showed the further adventures of Pierrot. 
Champfleury and Theophile Gautier wrote the scenarios. It 
was observed that as Pierrot grew older, his themes grew 
more terrifying. Deburau had played with death at a remove; 
Paul Legrand appeared in plays where death was actually 
present. In one of these plays, called Pierrot, Valet de la 
Mort, there is a scene where three coffins descend towards 
Death who sits quietly on his throne. The first is a very small 
coffin, containing a child, and Death is displeased, for he 
desired something larger. The second coffin contains a doctor. 
Death is highly amused to receive a visitor so faithful to 
himself. The third coffin contains Pierrot, stretched out white 
and motionless in his clown's clothes. There is a thunder- 
clap, blue lights shine over the stage, and Pierrot is allowed 
to descend from the coffin. Death amuses himself in the 
presence of Pierrot, asks him whether he likes the under- 
world, reminds him that he must return to the coffin. There- 
upon Pierrot begs to be allowed to serve his new master. 


Jean-Gaspard Deburau 

Joseph Crimaldi 

A Koshare Dancer 

A Drawing by E. E. Cummings 

The Three Masks 
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The Face of the Great Dictator 
Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer 

The Face of the Murderer 
Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street 

The Expression of Innocence 
Charlie Chaplin with Edna Purviance in Easy Street 

The Expression of Experience 
Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush 

An Aspect of Authority 
Charlie Chaplin in The Cure 

Another Aspect of Authority 
Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street 

The Exhaustion of Love 
A Scene from The Vagabond (Mutual, 1916) 

"His DarkneSS and His Brightness" Museum of Modem Art Film Library 

Charlie Chaplin in One A. M. (Mutual, 1916) 




The Tenor of Love 
Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan 
in The Kid (First National, 1920 

Museum of Modem Art Film Library 

The Tramp at the Mercy of a Woman 
A Scene from Pay Day 

The Grotesque Dangers 
A Scene from The Kid 

Museum of Modern Art Film Library 











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As what? A valet, if necessary. Death agrees, provided that 
Pierrot will also amuse him. There follows a terrible dance 
with all Hell's minions, and Death himself taking part, and 
while Death cracks with laughter and jumps up and down on 
his throne, Pierrot succeeds in escaping.* It is a strange story, 
written as a kind of tribute to the great Deburau shortly 
after his death; and Champfleury, who knew Deburau and 
wrote an epitaph for him, deliberately includes in Pierrot, 
Valet de la Mort, some lines which he wrote for the clown, 
saying that his white clothes were always a shroud, and from 
the very beginning the narrow stage of the Funambules 
Theatre had been his coffin. It was partly true. Some death- 
like quality hung about Deburau. The white-faced clown 
lived close to the skeleton. He had known death, stared it in 
the face and returned triumphant, but he knew that death 
was always waiting for him, knew it with the abandoned 
knowledge of a man who has seen Death plain and made no 
effort to hide his knowledge. "Everything which touches 
upon death," said Champfleury, "is of an astounding gaiety." 
In later years this knowledge was to be employed with in- 
credible tact and finesse by Monsieur Verdoux. 

Chaplin descends from Deburau, but he also descends from 
the English clowns, as we shall see. Outwardly the French 
and English clowns have little in common, as Baudelaire re- 
marked long ago, finding himself at a loss to explain what 
the English find amusing in their clowning. He found in the 
English a taste for exaggeration beyond all understanding, 
yet somehow convincing. He wrote: 

The English Pierrot comes running in like a tempest, falls 
down like a sack of coal and shakes the house with his laughter. 

* The story is taken from Champfleury, Souvenir des Funambules, Paris, 
1859. Champfleury may have had in mind the extraordinary story which 
Dio Cassius tells of the Emperor Domitian, who would invite his friends 
into a room draped from floor to ceiling in black. At the head of the couches 
were pillars like tombstones with the guests' names written on them. Naked 
boys, painted black, danced among them, and while the terror-stricken 
guests looked on, the death-like silence was broken by the aging Emperor 
recounting savage stories of blood and torture. 


His laughter is like a happy thunderstorm. He is a short thick 
fellow who has increased his bulk with a costume loaded with 
ribbons which serve the same office as the feathers and down of 
a bird or the fur of a Persian cat. Over his face he has painted, 
without any delicacy, two enormous scarlet circles, and his mouth 
is made wider by dabs of carmine, so that when he laughs his 
mouth seems to stretch from ear to ear. As for his behavior, 
watch what he does with the tarts. Where Deburau would sim- 
ply stretch out an inoffensive finger and lick the tart, your Eng- 
lish Pierrot jumps into the tarts with both feet: he suffers from 
the vertigo of exaggeration. Watch him as he passes a woman 
scrubbing her doorstep. He empties her pockets and takes every- 
thing she has on her, then he proceeds to steal her sponge, the 
broom, the soap, even the water in the bucket. 

I remember seeing an English Pierrot being guillotined. Why 
in England he should suffer death by the guillotine rather than 
the hangman's rope I have no way of knowing. Pierrot is led to 
the slaughter. He cries out, like a cow with the smell of the 
abattoir in his nostrils. He yells at the top of his lungs. Then the 
knife drops on that head which is all scarlet and white, and you 
see the head rolling across the stage, the bleeding neck and the 
broken vertebrae. Then suddenly, moved by the unquenchable 
egotism which is the hallmark of the English clown, Pierrot goes 
running wildly after his own head, with exactly the same gestures 
as previously he had run after a ham or a bottle of wine, and he 
proudly puts his head in his own pocket. The English must pos- 
sess a special gift for exaggeration, for I found these monstrous 
farces took on the air of a strangely convincing reality. 

Baudelaire found himself incapable of explaining that 
"strangely convincing reality." It puzzled him that Deburau 
should have convinced by gentleness where the English clown 
convinces by ribald farce; he would have been more than 
ever puzzled if he had seen Charlie, who combines the two 

Chapter Six 

The Funny Old Man With the 
Dripping Pan 

JP rench comedy was gay and gentle from the 
beginning, even in those early beginnings when the Lucifer 
in Arnoul Greban's Le Vrai Mystere de la Passion was gently 
laughed away, his fierce song of death and damnation being 
turned against him by the children who sing the same words 
as a roundelay. English comedy was of fiercer stuff. Shake- 
speare's clowns rant on the edge of madness, themselves he- 
roic figures caught up into the heights of tragedy. The clowns 
of the English mystery plays began their lives by being the 
devils who thrust the sinners into Hell's flames— hence the 
red-hot pokers, the death-gleam in their eyes, the way they 
are always harried and out of breath, poor devils roasting too 
close to the flames. 

About the time of Shakespeare or a little later Punch 
emerged. An old clown, weary of roasting sinners, he sets 
himself against all authority, even the devil's. He has a merry 
shrewish wife, a hunchback, a hook nose and a murderous 
rage which is aroused the moment the dog Toby appears and 
bites his nose. Very sensitive about his nose, he appeals to 
Toby's master Scaramouch, and when Scaramouch gives him 
no satisfaction, he knocks the old man's head clean off his 



shoulders and immediately afterwards comforts himself by 
showering affection on the dog. He calls his wife to bring the 
baby. The baby screams, and when Judy has left the stage, 
having pressed the baby into Punch's arms, Punch wearies 
of the whole business of baby tending and throws it out of the 
window. Judy returns and remonstrates. Punch decides she 
is behaving unreasonably, knocks her on the head and throws 
her out of the window after the baby, and it occurs to him 
to go in search of Pretty Polly, who will shower him with 
the affection which can no longer be showered on him be- 
cause he has massacred all those who might have had any 
regard for him. 

So far Punch is nothing more than a portrait of the ribald 
murderer, cousin to Sweeney Todd, the barber of Fleet Street 
who amused himself by cutting his customers' throats, and 
cousin, too, to the stern parents who appear in Harry 
Graham's ruthless rhymes: 

Father heard the children scream. 
So he threw them in the stream, 
Saying, as he drowned the third: 
"Children should be seen, not heard." 

But in the second scene of the puppet show complications 
begin. Punch complains of his loneliness and misery, and rid- 
ing his horse Hector he goes in pursuit of Pretty Polly and 
a haven of safety; but there is no safety anywhere in the 
world, the most ferocious dragons attack him, and though he 
succeeds in administering punishment to the dragons, he is 
himself punished by three fierce virgins. He escapes from 
them, but as he goes singing happily on his way he is thrown 
by Hector. Punch, declaring that he is a dead man, cries out 
for a doctor, and when the doctor comes and examines the 
wounds, Punch kicks him in the eye and leaps up. The doc- 
tor applies a dose of his stick, but Punch is deathless and the 
doctor succumbs with a broken skull. Thereupon, ringing a 
sheepbell, Punch performs a giddy dance and proclaims that 


he is lord of everyone. A lackey who comes to complain of 
the noise is immediately set upon and killed. There ends the 
second scene, compounded of a whole medley of legends, for 
the three fierce virgins are evidently stolen from the chaste 
females in Spenser's Squire of Dames (Faerie Queene, III, 7), 
the dance of the sheepbells is evidently the dance of Pan. 
and the lonely wanderer has something of the aspect of a 
murderous Parsifal. 

When the third scene opens we are mysteriously back in 
London Town. Punch, walking down the street, meets a 
blind beggar dressed as a friar. Punch decides he is an im- 
postor, beats him off, and when he comes running back again, 
kills him. Thereupon the Constable, a formidable figure, 
enters with a warrant for Punch's arrest. Punch has killed at 
least four people, excluding the dragons, but only the name 
of Scaramouch appears on the warrant. Punch knocks the 
Constable down, and the still more formidable Officer who 
arrives to rescue him. The executioner, Jack Ketch, at last 
succeeds in pinioning Punch and marching him off to prison 
with the help of considerable assistance. A curtain opens at 
the back. We see Punch rubbing his nose against the bars, 
quite content with himself, while he openly declares that no 
prison bars can hold him. Enter a gibbet and a coffin. Punch 
laughs at them, tricks Jack Ketch into hanging himself and 
laughs gleefully when the hangman is placed in the coffin 
and carried out. While he is laughing the devil appears, with 
horns and long claws and a tail. There is a wild rampageous 
struggle between them, but at last the devil who is dressed 
in a black skin and looks remarkably like a goat, is slain. The 
puppet-show ends with Punch whirling madly with the devil 
on the end of a stick, shouting: "Huzza! Huzza! the Devil's 

It is all, of course, terribly confused, with any number of 
legends intermingled. The incident of the blind friar dates 
from the time of Henry VIII. Scaramouch is the little cow- 
ardly skirmisher, Scarramuccia, of the Commedia dell' Arte, 


and clearly he is an insertion. Punch himself has some of the 
physical characteristics of the Italian Pulcinella, but his 
irony, his cold-blooded ferocity, his seductions (according to 
an eighteenth century ballad he needed twenty-two women 
to keep him satisfied), even his wars with the dragons derive 
from English sources. He is all the clowns rolled into one- 
Harlequin, Pulcinella, Robin Goodfellow, Tom o' Bedlam. 
As for the scene with the hangman, it is stolen straight out 
of the Commedia dell' Arte, for an exactly similar scene oc- 
curs at the end of the mime called Pulcinella the Brigand 
Chief. There Pulcinella is caught at last, after having taken 
a windmill by storm and threatened the mill-owner's wife. 
He is led to the scaffold. When the rope is placed round his 
neck, he plays with it and explains that he doesn't under- 
stand what it is for. The hangman cries: "You fool! This is 
how it is done!" Thereupon he slips his own head through 
the noose, and Pulcinella seizes his opportunity; he pulls on 
the rope and strangles the hangman, crying: "Who's a fool 

Punch, however, remains a complex creature, and though 
in his outward appearance he resembles Pulcinella most of 
all, his behavior is nearer to the behavior of the devils in the 
miracle plays who staked their wits on their cunning as they 
pushed the sinners into hell's flames. There is a Beelzebub 
in one of the mystery plays who comes running on the stage, 

In comes I, Beelzebub: 

In my hands I carries club, 

On my head a dripping pan. 

Don't you think I'm a funny old man? 

Of course we do, but one of the reasons why we think he is 
funny is because he is shovelling sinners into hell. Punch is 
funny for a very contrary reason: he shoves the devil into 
hell, and is not in the least bashful about his accomplish- 


ments. Yet they have the same gusto, the same rudeness and 

This rudeness, this coarseness, this play with death and 
damnation are part of English comedy from the beginning. 
The Italians would provide excellent reasons for Pulcinella's 
crimes; the English laugh at reasons. Punch starts his holo- 
caust of murders because he is irritated when Toby bites his 
nose. The English also laugh at plot and dramatic shape. 
Professor Francis Cornford has tried to show that the story 
of Punch follows the outlines of a classic Greek drama, begin- 
ning with the unknown crime, advancing to the contest be- 
tween the forces of good and evil, then ending with the 
formal announcement of the heavenly victory. This is non- 
sense. The story of Punch is as inconsequential as the dreams 
of Alice in Wonderland, and is nearly as terrible. Today in 
the marketplaces of England the enraptured children still 
laugh at the terrible deeds of Punch, for the same reason that 
they laugh at the adventures of Gulliver, the lonely misery 
of Crusoe and the graveyard adventures of Alice, and would 
if they could hold even Long John Silver to their breasts. 

We have seen the goat-footed god in many of his disguises. 
Punch is one of them. Another is Robin Goodfellow, who is 
even closer to the tradition of the English clown, less com- 
plex, far more elemental. He was called Robin Goodfellow 
for the excellent reason that he was not a good fellow except 
on rare occasions. Shaggy, goat-footed, goat-horned, always 
naked, he had the world at his mercy. He would come when 
you least expected him. He liked to turn the milk sour, and 
get under your bed, and shout in the middle of the night. 
He liked to meddle with maids. You could propitiate him 
with a dish of cream, but not for long. Grim the Collier of 
Croydon described him as ''the honestest merry devil that 
ever I saw," but there were others who were not so certain 
of his honesty. Shakespeare was gentle with him. It was Robin 
Goodfellow who contrived the episode concerning Bottom 
the Weaver and the ass's head in Midsummer Night's Dream, 


and Pistol played him in The Merrie Wives of Windsor. He 
was the embodiment of English clowning, and to see him in 
all his finery bursting on the English stage we must go to the 
astonishing figure of Joseph Grimaldi, whose Italian name 
disguises the most English of Charlie's spiritual ancestors. 

Grimaldi was born in 1779, and he was at his height during 
the Napoleonic wars. He was the son of one of those wan- 
dering Commedianti dell' Arte who invaded France from 
Italy. The old man was once an accomplished dancer, and 
he was called "Iron Legs," because on a famous occasion in 
Paris he had while dancing kicked a chandelier hanging far 
above the stage into the face of the Turkish ambassador. 
Then the dancer, wearying of his trade, came to England 
and became, of all things, chief dentist to the Queen, but he 
seems to have been easily wearied of dentistry, for he re- 
turned to the stage and became a famous clown, with Joseph 
as his chief assistant. Once, when the boy was disguised as a 
monkey on a chain, the father swung him so forcefully that 
the chain broke, and the boy would have been killed if he 
had not landed on a particularly plump spectator. At another 
time he was given a beating, and then went weeping and 
howling across the stage, to the delight of the audience, who 
insisted that the boy should always make his entry howling. 
His childhood was miserable, he was called "Grim-all-day" 
and he was famous for his look of unconcealed misery when 
he was off the stage. On the stage, when he grew older, he 
was the fiery spirit of mocking laughter, the purest of clowns 
—he invented the part of the Clown in the Harlequinade— 
and there were critics like Coleridge and Leigh Hunt who 
regarded a single wink, the intonation of a single monosyl- 
lable from Grimaldi as the highest form of comic art. 

What was he like? We can only guess. Cruikshank's draw- 
ings make him resemble a devilish kind of monkey, with a 
monkey face and a monkey manner, and this hardly helps 
us, for all the other evidence goes to show that he was re- 
markably human. He wrote his own memoirs, which Dickens 


edited, but they were written during the last years of his life 
and there comes from them no more than a warm ember 
glow. We see him more clearly through the eyes of Coleridge 
and Leigh Hunt, those avid watchers of pantomimes. They 
noted his elemental fury, his animal spirits, the way he im- 
mediately established contact with his audience, the dead- 
liness of his mimicry. When put to the torture, he would 
say "Don't" in a way which sent a wild shudder of delight 
through the audience. He would gaze at the moon and say 
"Nice" with the same effect. He would say "May I?" to the 
cakeman as he pilfered from a tray, and the audience became 
hysterical with joy. At this late date no one quite knows how 
it was done. He would dip the white trousers of a dandy into 
a mixture labelled "Raspberry Jam" or put a policeman 
through the mangle, so that he came out completely flat, and 
the rafters shook, and it was the same when he sang a duet 
with a mammoth oyster that had been crossed in love. Per- 
haps the explanation lay in the quality of his timing and the 
excellence of his mimicry. 

He had a voice like no one else: one moment it squeaked, 
the next it broke out into ribald laughter, and it was the 
joyful cavernous rumbling of that laughter which people re- 
member, saying like Coleridge that it sounded like the laugh- 
ter of Robin Goodfellow, who was only the great god Pan 
under an English name. He employed a paddle and used it to 
good effect on the backside of Pantaloon; Coleridge noted 
that in the hands of Grimaldi the paddle was "as lissom as a 
cane." He was brutal, clownish, wonderfully dexterous in 
his obscenity, so that he never gave offense to the women in 
the audience, and he could contrive to make anything out of 
anything. Out of a beadle's hat, a milliner's box, a salmon's 
head and a pair of boots he deftly fashioned something that 
resembled a clown, and suddenly this clown came to life, and 
then the very foundations of the theatre were shaken by the 
whirlwind of laughter. He had a famous song called "Hot 
Codlins" about a little old woman who sold hot codlins for 


a living, but though the codlins were hot, she was cold and 
to warm herself thought it no sin to fetch herself a quartern 
of At this point Grimaldi would pause and gaze inno- 
cently up at the gallery, and suddenly, with a sound like the 
roaring of an avalanche, there would come the cry: "Gin!" 
followed by an insane, meaningless chorus: 

Ri-tol-id-dy, id-dy, id-dy 
Ri-tol idy-dy, ri tol-lay. 

There were many verses to the song, and Grimaldi would ex- 
temporize on the theme of an old woman drinking gin until 
it would seem that there was nothing left to say, but he al- 
ways succeeded in giving a new shape to the comical old 
woman. Mostly, he was Clown in the Harlequinade, a gross 
figure who usurped the place of Harlequin and stole Colum- 
bine from under the eyes of her old father, Pantaloon, and 
knocked Harlequin straight out of the window. He would 
knock old Pantaloon to the floor and listen happily while 
the old fellow's skull cracked like a dropped egg. According 
to tradition Harlequin was something of a daredevil, but the 
clown was now more mocking, insolent, clownish and obscene 
than Harlequin had ever dared to be. 

Some prodigious power drove Grimaldi, and long before 
his death he burned himself out. Wasted and ill, he visited a 
doctor who took one look at the sick face of the clown and 
said: "I would recommend that you see Grimaldi." The 
clown replied: "I am Grimaldi." The story is true, and Chap- 
lin holds it to be the best of all the stories ever told of clowns. 
Something of Grimaldi's mood during those last days can be 
seen in the letter he wrote to a friend, declining an invita- 

Dear old friend, 

I shall not be able to come— Poor Joey's laid up in lavender, 
this cold weather, and will never again make Christmas folk grin 
with his anticks, his buffooneries, and his quips and cranks. 

No more concealment of sausages in his capacious trucks pock- 


ets— no more bottles stored away— no more merry songs, sayings 
and gibes. 

O my heart grieves! Well, there must be an end to everything 
mortal, and, as poor Palmer said (his last words): "There is an- 
other and a better world." I wonder if I shall be able to "clown" 
it THERE! Well, adsum. 

Yours as ever, 
Joey Grimaldi 

The letter was written in December 1836, when his savings 
had melted away and when his only child, a gifted clown, had 
died in a roaring delirium after a fling of vicious dissipation. 
He lived on charity, a man who looked much older than his 
years, suffering from creeping paralysis, haunted by the 
thought that he was completely forgotten. He need not have 
worried. His hilarious shadow dominated the pantomime un- 
til nearly the end of the century. 

Grimaldi's death left a gap which no single clown could 
fill. This man who hurled himself upon the stage with some- 
thing of the elemental fury of a drunken Hercules had 
changed the shape of English humor. The man who put to- 
gether a lady's muff, a pocket-watch, a bell-rope, a pair of 
coal-scuttles and a red-hot poker, and somehow contrived to 
make out of these odds and ends a hussar of the line was not 
altogether capable of dying. He had two successors. One was 
Dan Leno, the other was Charles Chaplin. 

Dan Leno was the product of the pantomime, the music- 
hall and the Penny Gaffs. The Penny Gaffs were theatres 
where poor people spent a penny for an evening's entertain- 
ment in the thirties and forties of the last century. Nearly 
all of them were in the East End of London, in the Com- 
mercial Road, the Mile-End Road and the villainous Rat- 
cliffe Highway, which was the scene of some of the adventures 
of Oliver Twist. There were others around King's Cross, 
Marylebone and Paddington. These theatres were in mews, 
barns, cowsheds or stables, with only a miniature stage for 


the players and rough benches for the audience. The per- 
formances consisted of two short plays with a song in be- 
tween, which the audience sang with the players. There was 
almost no scenery, and the costumes served many purposes. 
Usually, the performance lasted a bare forty-five minutes, 
and was repeated later in the evening. The actors starved, 
rarely getting more than a shilling a night, and most of them 
got less. They put on pantomimes at Christmas, where they 
guyed the great displays at Drury Lane, and though no great 
actors ever came from the Penny Gaffs they established the 
tradition which introduced the music-hall. 

The music-hall was slightly more decorous, and far more 
comfortable. Noisy, ill-ventilated, reeking of beer and sex, 
the music-halls paid higher salaries, transformed the two vio- 
lent plays into a number of comic or sentimental acts, intro- 
duced the earnest monolog and the lady harpist, and provided 
adequate contrasts in buffoonery and horseplay. Like the 
Penny Gaffs they began in the East End of London. The 
first was the Canterbury erected on the site of a public saloon 
in 1837. There was Gilbert's in Whitechapel, the Rodney, 
the Lord Nelson, the Cambridge in Shoreditch, the Foresters 
in the Cambridge Road. Later there was the New Canterbury 
Hall at the junction of the Westminster Bridge Road and 
the Upper Marsh, which young Chaplin attended assiduously. 
The English in the reign of Queen Victoria possessed boister- 
ous passions which they concealed with difficulty; the music- 
halls provided the safety-valve. Usually it was some little 
devil of a sharp-witted Cockney who was responsible for al- 
lowing the steam to escape. 

Here it should be explained that a Cockney is not, in the 
ordinary sense, an Englishman. There exists in the East End 
of London an enclave of people who are short, nimble-fin- 
gered, prodigiously sharp-witted, who dress themselves up 
with pearls in their caps and over their clothes on August 
Bank Holiday, and they speak a dialect derived from Chau- 
cer's fourteenth century London. The name means "a cock's 


egg," which is to say that Londoners once regarded them as 
impossible people. They have their own peculiar rites, say 
"aht" instead of "out," and they have been endowed with 
a sense of mimicry ever since they first wore their pearly 
costumes in imitation and contempt of their Norman French 
conquerors. They are the original Londoners, a race apart, 
with a gypsy-like delight in gaudy funerals. Their chief claim 
to our notice is that they provided the Penny Gaffs and the 
music-halls with Cockney spice and wit. 

The pantomimes were performed at Christmas and fol- 
lowed rigorous patterns. So did the Penny Gaffs. The music- 
halls broke the patterns, borrowed from both, and erected 
Grimaldi's Clown into the place of honor, for the acts were 
always announced by a clown whose ribald comments held 
them together and maintained a sense of continuity. 

The clown, however, did not wear the uniform of Gri- 
maldi. Grimaldi's uniform consisted of a wig with three 
black tufts in imitation of the dandy of Napoleonic days 
who wore his wig brushed down the back and tied the ends 
in a silk bag. Then there was a lace collar, a white tunic em- 
broidered with scarlet circles or roses, silk hose with clocks 
and scarlet shoes and bright red garters at the knees. The 
face was painted dead white with here and there a few scarlet 
smears. Grimaldi explained that the scarlet smears and the 
large scarlet mouth were designed to give the effect of a boy 
who had been caught smearing his face with jam. It was a 
costume perfectly appropriate for the times, but Dan Leno, 
living in an industrial age, abandoned the costume, keeping 
the dead white face and three black tufts. For the rest he 
wore whatever it was necessary to wear. He would play the 
clown or the dame in a pantomime, but on the music-hall 
stage he usually wore a seedy morning coat, long baggy trou- 
sers and enormous long boots. A man of prodigious nervous 
energy, he was known to leap backwards six feet and come 
to rest on the points of the boots. Like Grimaldi he was no 
more than five foot four in height, and he even possessed a 


physical resemblance to his great predecessor, but where 
Grimaldi was the leaping spirit of the earthly comedy, Dan 
Leno hinted at tragedy. He had frightening large eyes, a 
wide grin with a twist at the corners of the mouth and high 
arched eyebrows set in a perpetual expression of surprise. 
His face was emaciated, and as though to make himself even 
more emaciated, he usually painted two black lines stretching 
from the bridge of his nose to his forehead. He was a new 
Grimaldi who had blundered into an industrial age, shop- 
worn, perpetually exhausted. Where Grimaldi grimaced, Dan 
Leno leered. Where Grimaldi was all fire and thunder, Dan 
Leno was all nerves. He had once been a champion clog- 
dancer. The tired mask concealed enormous physical vitality, 
and those sudden unaccountable and altogether unreasonable 
leaps across the stage were to become as famous as Nijinsky's. 
But it was observed that all his actions, even these extraor- 
dinary leaps, seemed to be dictated by a sense of rhythm, and 
his pathos was no more than a mimicking of his audience. 

It is impossible to avoid the association of Dan Leno with 
Charlie Chaplin. There were physical and psychological re- 
semblances. Both came from the London streets, both were 
born with a fantastic power of mimicry, and they possessed 
the mysterious power of being able to conjure up whole 
landscapes. Wearing a spiky mustache and a soiled napkin 
on his arm, Dan Leno imitated a waiter on an empty stage. 
There were no tables, no guests, no mirrors, no candelabras, 
but the stage had suddenly became a vast restaurant and Dan 
Leno was weaving among the tables, to fall at last upon some 
luckless guest complaining of the food. In a dry husky voice, 
in a huge rush of words, he would argue with the guest, and 
you would almost hear the guest shrivelling up when Dan 
Leno explained: "Change your chop, Sir? I couldn't do that, 
Sir. You've stuck your fork in and let the steam out." Or else 
he was a travelling showman and he would recite a long his- 
tory of miserable travelling, how they changed their trains 
and got lost and how a child was left behind, but they found 


the child somehow, and in the end they all sat down to enjoy 
a feast, the clowns, the fat woman of the circus, the child, the 
showman, everyone glad the journey was over. "So then we 
all 'ad tea, and the fat woman sat down on a pound of butter. 
Lord, I never saw a pound of butter go so far in my life." 
He would puff out his chest and become a Beefeater in the 
Tower of London, luring a party to the refreshment rooms— 
"You want everything to be ancient, do you? Well, look in- 
side. Look at our sandwiches and our barmaids." 

It was corny, but it was magnificent, and he would repeat 
the same gags night after night, but somehow they had 
changed. He was born in St Pancras, which is in sound of 
the bells of Bow Church and therefore by definition he was 
a Cockney, and there was a Cockney insolence in his de- 
meanor and at the same time there was that gallery of humble 
characters he created with the lift of an eyebrow and with the 
simplest props, an old squashed bonnet if he was imitating a 
charwoman, the butcher boy's blue-and-white-striped apron, 
an imaginary bicycle if he was a cyclist, and two bicycles if 
he was a boy and a girl going out into the country on a Sat- 
urday afternoon. These humble characters were never cari- 
catures. He chose his imaginary backgrounds carefully. A 
bar, a street corner, the entrance of a house where three or 
four people have met on the way back from fetching the sup- 
per beer. He would make breathless confidences in a patter 
so fast that it seemed impossible that he would be able to go 
on without pausing for breath, but the patter continued, 
every word in place, and suddenly he would break out into 
a ribald song. As he grew older, thin as a lamp-post, with an 
uncanny gleam in his eyes, he became more boisterous and a 
little shriller. He played ping-pong with a frying pan and 
potatoes, or burlesqued a young girl at her harp lessons, and 
it was noticed that there was an added savagery and petulance 
in his performances. He expostulated, as always, with an ir- 
rational world, himself the only rational being in it, but the 
great grey London Times remarked that he was growing 


thoughtful and there was more than a touch of philosophical 
resignation in that remorseless stream of patter. "If he goes 
on in this way," thundered The Times, "criticism will have 
to rank him among the 'thoughtful' and that may be an 
honor embarrassing to him as 'taking silk' is to some members 
of the outer Bar. It would hardly do for Mr Leno to be re- 
garded merely as an intellectual treat." The progress was 
probably inevitable: the line which separates the very comic 
from the tragic is thin as a hair, and in the end Dan Leno 
went mad. Just before he went mad he wrote a brief account 
of his life. There he discussed some of the same problems 
which fascinated Kierkegaard, and speaking of his childhood 
at No. 4 East Court, St Pancras, he said: 

Here I spent my happy childhood hours. Ah! What is man? 
Wherefore does he why? Whence did he whence? Wither is he 
withering? . . . Then the guard yelled out: Leicester, Derby, Not- 
tingham, Manchester, Liverpool! 

Perhaps, he seemed to be saying, the blast of the guard's 
whistle and the recital of the towns of England was sufficient 
explanation for life. 

Though he went mad, there were intervals when sanity 
returned, long periods when he walked the music-halls or 
played the dame part in pantomimes. Gentleness had de- 
scended on him. He was a wraith of a man, but with grease 
paint the ghost could be made to assume flesh and blood. He 
still hurried onto the stage with an air of wild determination, 
but the fire had gone. There were moments when he would 
pause in his lines and smile sweetly at the audience, and no 
one knew whether to laugh or cry, or whether he had for- 
gotten his lines, or what the smile meant. When he died in 
the autumn of 1904, chiefly of grief over the death of one of 
his stage companions, The Times commented that no one 
had ever seen his like before and it would be necessary to go 
back to the Commedia dell' Arte to see his like again. 

The music-halls continue in England, shorn of their for- 
mer magnificence, but the great days were over long before 


Dan Leno died. The pantomime, too, remains, but it has be- 
come a thing of processions and bare -legged girls and the 
dame has usurped the role of Harlequin and a mechanical 
glitter has taken the place of the broad comedy of the nine- 
ties. No longer does the Clown go right through the panto- 
mime as in the days of Grimaldi. In those days the pantomime 
began with a Transformation Scene where the veils lifted to 
reveal an earthly paradise of young women reclining among 
strange rocks and rose-leaves and lotuses. Then Clown, Pan- 
taloon, Columbine and Harlequin appeared, and the Clown 
jumped to the footlights with the famous old greeting derived 
from the Miracle Plays: "Here we are again!" He threw 
crackers to all the children in the audience, and sometimes 
he hurled them casually as far as the dress circle. There fol- 
lowed a street-scene against the front-cloth, with the Clown 
wielding his sword and stealing a string of sausages from a 
butcher's shop and the Policeman had his trousers burned 
and Columbine pirouetted happily and Pantaloon fell flat 
on his face. The front-cloth lifted, and you saw Harlequin 
thrown ten feet in the air through a star-trap, and so the 
Harlequinade went on, and all the rest of the pantomime 
was constructed around them. By the early nineties the street- 
scene, which set the pace, had vanished, and the others fol- 
lowed one by one. When Harry Payne, the last of the 
Harlequinade clowns of the Drury Lane pantomime, with 
his white face, vermilion cheeks, tufted white wig and scarlet- 
and- white tunic, died in 1895, the tradition was coming to 
an end. Today the Harlequinade is extinct; it had almost 
perished while Dan Leno was playing his charwomen on the 
music-hall stage. 

When Chaplin emerged there were only the fag-ends of a 
dying tradition. By 1900 the great days were over. The cen- 
tury died, and the spirit of comedy died with it. The wave of 
hilarious comedy, which began with Grimaldi during the 
Napoleonic Wars, died with the Boer War and was not to 
rise again until Charlie flashed on the screen in 1914. 

Chapter Seven 

The Dark City 

v^ut of royal London came those immense 
choruses of laughter which rolled across the whole of Eng- 
land and then rolled back again, a strange wild laughter with 
devilry in it, and some malice, a laughter which grew out of 
the sodden poverty-stricken alleyways. The sources of that 
laughter were mostly in the East End and along the Embank- 
ment. It was the laughter of the poor, touched with craziness 
and the happiness of drinking gin which Londoners called 
"strip-me-naked." Dickens had his drunks, but they are apt 
to be seen at their convivial pleasures. It was the laughter 
of the poor devil drinking alone which spilt over on the mu- 
sic-hall stage. 

At the end of the century London was still recognizably 
the same place which produced Hogarth's haunting picture 
of Gin Lane with its drunken half-naked women and carous- 
ing men. The pawnbroker's shops are overflowing, a steady 
stream of people flock to the gin-mills and no one pays any 
attention to the man who has hanged himself in full view of 
the street. On the steps beneath the pawnbroker's shop Ho- 
garth shows a girl laughing at the top of her lungs, having 
just tossed her baby down an alleyway. 

The poverty of London, the welling misery of it, struck 
Dickens like a crushing blow. He never quite recovered from 


that gaping sore. The journalist Mayhew, who wrote a mon- 
umental study of London Labour and the London Poor, 
could suggest the misery in a single phrase, where Dickens 
used several thousands. He once asked an eight-year-old girl 
selling watercress whether she had seen children crying. "It's 
no use," the girl said. He did not always touch that raw nerve. 
He asked a whelkman boiling whelks whether they suffered. 
"No," answered the whelkman reflectively. "Lobsters and 
crabs kick, but whelks never. They take it gently. Why, I've 
suffered more with a toothache than the whole of a measure 
of whelks has in a boiling." But the Londoners of the East 
End did not take it quiet; they rebelled, and their rebellion 
took the form of laughter. It was mostly healthy, but there 
were insane glints in it. 

Today, there is little left of the primitive horror which 
boiled over the East End even fifty years ago. The horror had 
been boiling for a long time. There are hints of it in the 
Elizabethan playwrights, Lamb cursed against it mightily, 
and Blake raged against it in Auguries of Innocence: 

The beggar's rags, fluttering in air, 
Does to rags the heavens tear. 

Unfortunately, there is always something comic in a beggar's 
rags, if only because we can see his flesh within the rags, and 
ever since clowning began, the clown has worn the livery of 
beggardom. The East End was full of beggars, criminals, 
poverty-stricken Poles in the factories, poor Jews coughing 
up their lungs in steaming laundries, as well as Cockneys, 
who were dock-workers or costermongers, and all were 
ragged, and all struggled for existence on the fringes of a 
seedy respectability heavy with the fumes of hot gin and 
greasy lumps of nameless food. It was a place where murder 
ripened and grew fat, and cutthroats were legion. "At last I 
shall present you with real criminals," says Dickens in the 
introduction to Oliver Twist. He knew them well, for at the 
age of twelve he was thrust into Warren's blacking factory 


at Hungerford Stairs, and in that rat-ridden warehouse by 
the Thames he was conscious, he tells us, of "a deep sense of 
abandonment." He was not the only one. Abandonment was 
in the air. It was something people fed on, while the yellow- 
ish mists gathered over the river and the garish gaslamps on 
the riverside were like fruit growing from no tree. Dickens 
spoke of "that black tree, of which I am the ripened fruit," 
but sometimes, as he knew well enough, he would shut his 
eyes and see the tree flourishing like a flurry of rockets, all 
gold and green and blue, and then the dreams came, and 
when he woke up he was still a snot-nosed awkward boy lost 
among the rats of the blacking factory. For the rest of his life 
he wrote novels which made the ugliness absurd, so that he 
could laugh at it, but it was still ugliness when he had fin- 
ished laughing, and on his own showing the horror drove 
him into moments of madness, all the world turning against 
him, the blackness coming out of the river and chasing him 
through the dark alleys. 

Nowadays they say Dickens was not a realistic novelist; 
some fantastical imp, they say, was dancing in his brain when 
he invented those fantastical characters. But it was not so. 
London was full of dark, straggling, savage, comic characters, 
and there was only a little caricature in his drawing of them. 
The thieves' kitchens were real enough; so was the sour taste 
in the air, the misery of the shreds of fog, the loneliness of a 
London street at twilight. Dickens speaks once of a servant 
"pale and polite with fear," which describes one of the moods 
of Charlie well enough. The fear welled up from the river, 
from the dark streets where all the houses were the same, 
all crumbling in the same way, with their small whitewashed 
stone steps, lace curtains turning yellow and glossy asphidis- 
tras— there was something terrible even in that desperate de- 
sire for respectability. The streets were like the streets in 
nightmares, always empty, every house like every other 
house, and somewhere at the end of the street a small boy is 
running away from an invisible dread. One day in Italy 


Dickens found himself pursued by the nightmare, and sud- 
denly out of nowhere there came to him the memory of "a 
road like some byeway in Whitechapel— or— I look again- 
like Wych Street, down by the little baker's shop on the same 
side of the way as Holywell Street— or— I look again— as like 
Holywell Street itself— as ever street was like a street, or ever 
will be in this world." The horror of it tormented him, a 
nameless horror like that which came to him when he saw 
the words MOOR-EEFFOC one day in St. Martin's Lane 
and thought the devil had spoken from the plate-glass win- 
dow of a coffee-shop. 

Dickens wrote the mark of London on all his novels, and 
spent his last hours entangled in a story of a London murder 
so dark, so mysterious, so filled with the heaviness of river- 
fog, that no one has yet been able to penetrate into that last 
unfinished work of his. London held him by the throat. He 
went away to America, but London drew him back again, 
for the hand stretching round his throat reached all the way 
across the Atlantic and he was conscious of it even when he 
was standing below Niagara Falls. And he was all his char- 
acters except Pickwick, the fruit of a youthful exuberance. 
He was Uriah Heep as well as David Copperfield. David 
hates Uriah, and so does Dickens, but Uriah Heep talks in 
the accents of Dickens. Listen to him discussing humility: 

Father and me was both brought up at a foundation school 
for boys; and mother, she was likewise brought up at a public, 
sort of charitable establishment. They taught us a deal of urn- 
bleness. . . . We was to be umble to this person, and umble to 
that; and to pull off our caps here, and to make bows there; and 
always to know our place and abase ourselves before our betters; 
Father got the monitor medal for being umble. . . . "Be umble, 
Uriah," says father to me, "and you'll get on." It was what was 
always being dinned into you and me at school; it's what goes 
down best. "Be umble," says father, "and you'll do." And really 
it aint done bad. . . . I'm very umble to the present moment, 
Master Copperfield, but I've got a little power. 


So, to the very end, Dickens demonstrated his tormented hu- 
mility, and showed that he possessed a little power. But the 
power came later. In his childhood there was only torment, 
humility, the blacking factory, Marshalsea Prison, the smell 
of death in the air. 

Dickens was so affected by the spirit of his lost childhood 
that he never spoke of it to his wife and children, and they 
only learned that he had been a slave in a factory and a pris- 
oner in a debtor's prison from Forster's biography, long after 
his death. Here are two passages describing the crushed hopes 
of people lost in the maze of London: 

No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk 
into this companionship; compared these every day associates 
with those of my happier childhood; and felt my early hopes of 
growing up to be a learned and distinguished man crushed in 
my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being 
utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my posi- 
tion; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day 
by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and 
raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from 
me, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written. My 
whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation 
of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and 
happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and 
children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to 
that time of my life. 

I can picture the old derelict as he first appeared to me beside 
his round cart heaped with tomatoes, his greasy clothes shiny in 
their unkemptness, the rather glassy single eye that had looked 
from one side of his face staring at nothing in particular, but 
giving you the feeling that it was seeing all. His method never 
varied. There was a sudden twitching convulsion, and he leaned 
to one side, trying to straighten out the other as he did so, and 
then, taking into his one good lung all the air it would stand, 
he would let forth a clattering, gargling, asthmatic, high-pitched 
wheeze, a series of sounds which defied interpretation. Some- 
where in the explosion there could be detected "ripe tomatoes." 


The first of the passages is by Dickens; the second was writ- 
ten by Chaplin after his return to London; but how similar 
they are in their evocation of a mood of frustrated hope and 
longing, of hurt and helpless misery. Their origins were in 
the same dark corners of London; both struggled to get away; 
both received the shocks of fame too young; both relied on 
the arts of mimicry and caricature, and tortured themselves 
with memories of London, as though they thought they could 
exorcise the evil by staring it in the face, and both possessed 
a wonderful power of describing incidents without the least 
command over plot or situation. They saw things in blinding 
flashes, in sudden spurts of intuition, catching the model on 
the wing in an attitude so characteristic that the rest of him 
could be deduced by an exercise of the imagination; the re- 
sult is a rapid, boldly executed impressionistic sketch, mas- 
terly in its contours, unbelievably accurate, but often without 
depth. Mr E. M. Forster has observed of Micawber that "at 
any moment we may look at him edgewise and find him no 
thicker than a gramaphone record." So it is with the early 
films of Chaplin. We are convinced of the reality of the 
clown, but we are not wholly convinced that if we stuck him 
with a pin he would bleed. As for Pickwick, stuck with a pin, 
that fantastic monster clearly has no blood in him; there 
would bubble out of him good gravy and English beer. 

There is nothing in the least strange in the fact that the 
art of Chaplin approximates so closely to the art of Dickens; 
nor is it surprising that Chaplin regards Great Expectations 
as one of the greatest of all books and one of the greatest of 
all films, for here, with the fewest possible subterfuges, Dick- 
ens recounted his own life, not quite as accurately as he re- 
counted it in some portions of David Copperfield, but with 
greater breadth and with a terrible insistence on the graveyard 
images that haunted him, and with a closer feeling for the 
genuine nobility of the child. Dickens was a man, as Edmund 
Wilson has shown in Dickens: the Two Scrooges, who was 
sorely divided from childhood, and as he grew older the 


chasm in his soul grew wider. Part of him remained the Vic- 
torian gentleman; part of him was a guilty outcast with a 
contempt for the law and an eternal horror of prison. There 
was nothing unusual in this dichotomy of the Victorian soul. 
There are moments when even Browning, the apostle of 
God's goodness, shows a Manichee's belief in Satan's victory 
over the world; there are passages in Pippa Passes and The 
Ring and the Book which show a guilty delight in the knowl- 
edge of evil, the sense of some crime never wholly concealed, 
of some beautiful and lost face murdered among the ormolu 
clocks and the antimacassars. 

We shall never know why the age of Queen Victoria, so 
tranquil, timid and adventurous, introduced a sense of guilt; 
nothing like it existed in Elizabethan times. It came, perhaps, 
out of the smoke of industrialism, out of the knowledge that 
huge powers were placed in men's hands— the power to scale 
continents, to disembowel the earth of its treasures, to move 
as quick as lightning. The guilt of Dickens arose from the 
misery of the rat-ridden warehouse and the debtor's prison, 
but it had other origins. It was in the air men breathed; and 
Browning, living in France or Italy, breathed it there as well 
as in London. Perhaps men knew instinctively that a murder 
had been committed on the human person when he was com- 
pelled to attend to machines, and another murder was com- 
mitted when justice became bureaucratic. At some period 
during the reign of Queen Victoria, or perhaps a little earlier, 
there occurred a fall from grace, a sense of the degradation 
of the whole human family. The revolutions failed. The 
dreams of paradise were seen to be no more than dreams. Out 
of that failure come the shabby, carefree, mutilated creatures 
of Dickens; and from the same failure comes Charlie, who 
may be Pan in disguise, but he wears the cutaway of a Vic- 
torian dandy. Once, before he grew lean with misery and 
imprisonment, he may have been Pickwick— how else can 
one explain those trousers five sizes too big for him? 

The Victorian misery was real and urgent; out of that 


misery Marx constructed his desperate visions of an en- 
throned proletariat, and we are paying dearly for the sins of 
our great-grandfathers. We think of the Victorian age in 
terms of gewgaws and mahogany tables, bead curtains and 
monstrous monuments to German princes; but the proper 
symbols of that age are the debtors' prisons and Sweeney 
Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who had a habit 
of cutting throats with the precision of a machine and whose 
performances were completely arbitrary. One should not de- 
spise Sweeney Todd, the first of the cutting machines. He was 
well-known to Dickens; he appears at considerable length in 
the longest of James Joyce's works, and T. S. Eliot has dis- 
cussed him without irony in Sweeney Agonistes, where he 
announces himself as a cannibal and boasts of knowing a 
man who "did a girl in," as though it was not obvious that 
the murderer was the cannibal himself. He appears in 
Sweeney Among the Nightingales: 

Apeneck Sweeney spread his knees 
Letting his arms hang down to laugh . . . 

He is all the horror of brute force and all the ma! volence of 
industrialism. He is what made Dickens' characters become 
what they are. He is the enemy who "sang within the bloody 
wood when Agamemnon cried aloud," and he is everything 
which Charlie and Dickens' characters, or most of them, are 
not. He is the baboon behind the face of the Queen, and if 
we sometimes fail to recognize him, it is because the Queen 
gets in his way. Victorian decorum concealed the crime; but 
invisible, known to everyone, like some Grendel emerging 
from the swamps, the shaggy baboon with the razor between 
his teeth ruled the roost. There are times when the Victorian 
age seems to be one of shuddering terror, even more fearful 
than our own. At such times we see the apelike figures stalk- 
ing like the apaches through the fog-laden streets, determined 
to kill or punish or imprison for no better reason than the 
lust in their blood, that diseased blood which had grown rot- 


ten from the acid-smells of the mud-swamps of London river. 
Shakespeare knew those mud-swamps well; so did Dickens 
who described them at length; Chaplin lived among them, 
and breathed the same foetid air. Shakespeare lived in Shore- 
ditch, Dickens in the shadow of Hungerford Bridge, and 
saw the gibbets on the marshes at low-tide— the names Shore- 
ditch and Hungerford described the landscape. But worse 
than even the clammy shores of the East End were the prisons 
where men rotted. 

Dickens knew prison well enough, because he had been in 
one; and the prison is one of the central symbols of his work, 
the inescapable symbol of dread and death, or worse. Listen 
to Mr Jingle, once a grinning Punchinello, now a grimacing 
prisoner huddled in the darkness and the shadows of the 

Lie in bed— starve— die— Inquest— little bone-house— poor pris- 
oner—common necessaries— hush it up— gentlemen of the jury- 
warden's tradesmen— keep it snug— natural death— coroner's or- 
ders—workhouse funeral— serve him right— all over— drop the cur- 

The strange thing is that we regard Pickivick as a happy book, 
yet it is crowded with characters as menacing as Mr Jingle 
when he contemplates an inevitable death in prison. Pick- 
wick winds its way inevitably to the Fleet Prison; the shadows 
are present even at moments of the highest comedy. They 
could hardly avoid being present, because they are a part of 
Dickens, as they are a part of Chaplin, whose tramp, shrug- 
ging his shoulders and going down a country lane, is bound 
for the county jail. In the Fleet, Mr Pickwick hears the pa- 
thetic cry: "Pray, remember the poor debtors." Dickens and 
Chaplin remembered them; and it is a part of their genius 
that they remembered honestly and well. 

The human comedy, as men live it, is played out in minute 
shadings from white to black. Dickens, retaining his childlike 
vision, forever remembering the brutal gin-soaked horrors 


of Regency London, sees a world of crude contrasting pri- 
mary colors inhabited by people at once mysterious, simple 
and faintly grotesque. His blacks are as black as pitch; his 
whites are floating bridal veils, crowns of blossoms, plains of 
virgin snow. It could hardly be otherwise, for his passions 
were acute; but passion injects strange dyes into the colors 
of the world we see, and both Dickens and Chaplin found it 
necessary to caricature the world, and for the same reason. 
Within the wide limits of their vision, the world as they see 
it is perfectly rendered. But occasionally they both surrender 
to a merciless delight in caricature, and with hoots of ecstatic 
joy they describe the meaningless gestures and tics with which 
even the most noble of men pass through the world. The 
early Keystone and Essanay shorts are full of caricatures; 
there are almost none in The Kid and Monsieur Verdoux, 
while The Great Dictator is brimming over with them. 

With caricature goes facetiousness, the same kind of face- 
tiousness which led Chaplin to call his characters Lord de 
Boko and Count Chloride de Lime, and Dickens to invent 
a whole gallery of improbable names like Mr Gradgrind, 
Mrs Gamp and Lord Verisopht, which belongs to the same 
order of things as Adenoid Hynkel. This facetiousness was 
traditional; in nineteenth century English fiction half the 
doctors are incomprehensibly born with names like Slasher, 
Carver and Fillgrave. But facetiousness is not a good basis 
for comedy, and we are appalled when Dickens writes in the 
first chapter of one of his greatest books: "Madame Manta- 
lini wrung her hands for grief and rung the bell for her hus- 
band; which done, she fell into a chair and a fainting fit 
simultaneously." There are a few, a very few, moments in 
Chaplin's films when an exactly similar parody occurs. As 
for Madame Mantalini, she never wholly recovers from this 
assault on her dignity, for it is clear that she did none of 
these things; she could not; some owlish schoolboy has as- 
sumed the place of Dickens; and the precociously witty 
schoolboy is soon put away. Gissing has suggested that these 


farcical extravagances were employed to soften the bitterness 
of truth. It is a nice phrase, but Dickens was rarely concerned 
to soften bitterness of any kind, and it is more likely that 
his facetiousness arose when he stepped beyond caricature 
into farce. Farce hovers over his novels, never far removed 
though rarely present in the substance of the novels them- 
selves. It is the same with Chaplin. The slightest twist of the 
micrometer, the slightest faltering of focus, and all the films 
would evaporate into farce, so close are high tragedy and 
high comedy to the farcical. 

Chaplin's childhood in Lambeth was farce, tragedy, com- 
edy and utter boredom. Born in Fontainebleau near Paris, 
he was less than a year old when he was brought to live in 
Chester Street which runs between Kennington Road and 
Lower Kennington Lane. Until he went on tour the shabby 
sidestreets of Kennington were his home. His mother was 
half-French, there was some Spanish blood in her, and there 
may have been gypsy blood as well. Her grandfather was a 
French general who may have fought under Napoleon. His 
father, a cobbler's son, was a baritone and a 'cellist, and 
well-known in the music-halls. A photograph reproduced on 
the music-sheets of a song he popularised shows him to have 
had a debonair expression, his hair thick and curly, his eyes 
very large and his lips rather feminine, but the whole face 
suggests a carefree extravert and a man of the world. He was 
about twenty-five when he married his half-French wife in 
1888. In the early morning of April 16 in the following year, 
the first and only son of the marriage was born. Three months 
before his birth an obscure photographer called Friese 
Greene had taken at the corner of Hyde Park the first mov- 
ing pictures ever made. 

The early years of the marriage were hard torture for the 
young parents, both of whom had children from previous 
marriages to support. They went on tour, but music-halls 
provided them with a bare living, and they were often in 
debt. They were gifted performers, and if they had found a 


good manager they might have made a decent living, but 
mostly they were reduced to singing ballads on the stage and 
they were never at the top of the bill. The father was proud 
of his comic singing, the mother of her Gilbert and Sullivan 
repertoire and her knowledge of French ballads. The boy 
was barely two when he learned to be a clog dancer and to 
sing from their repertoire. He was taken with them on their 
travels. Bright and well-formed, with his mother's sensitivity 
and his father's features, he was appealing when he was led 
out onto the stage; like Grimaldi he was an actor almost be- 
fore he could walk. There were constant visits to France to 
escape creditors, then long dismal days in London while the 
two music-hall veterans searched for jobs, and the jobs came 
rarely, and gradually they drifted apart. At the age of four 
or five young Charles took his mother's place on the stage at 
Croydon and sang the rowdy old coster song, "Jack Jones." 
His mother was ill. Out of desperation the boy gave a per- 
formance which brought the house down. Like many chil- 
dren he had the power of total recall, and therefore, imitating 
his mother, he sang with all the requisite nuances, all her 
fire. Pennies were rained down on the stage, and he would 
have gone on singing all night if his father had not dragged 
him away. 

He was seeing the world as it is. Fascinated, he watched 
the drunks and derelicts shambling along the Embankment; 
the small world which stretched between Kennington Road 
and the Thames was to haunt him all his life. The doss-houses 
he knew, for he wandered into them. He remembered the 
costers with their round carts heaped with tomatoes, their 
greasy clothes shining in the light of kerosene lamps, and he 
remembered particularly one coster with a glass eye which 
stared at nothing in particular, but gave you the feeling that 
he was seeing everything. He had a large bottled nose with 
a net of red veins on it. There is something of that majestic 
all-seeing coster in the portrait of Charlie, but it was the old 
blind man with the ear-muffs and clothes green with age 


who left the greatest mark on the boy. Sitting under West- 
minster Bridge with his back against the damp wall, the blind 
man read the dirty embossed Bible in his hands, and all the 
while his lips moved silently. His beard was grey and mat- 
ted, and the eyes with their stark sightless stare filled Charles 
with utter misery. Blindness haunted him, and the pure 
horror of these blind old men was to become transformed 
into the quiet horror of the blind girl in City Lights. 

London was full of deformed men, victims of an outra- 
geous social system. They were not men who were crippled in 
the wars; they were crippled by disease, by poverty, by the 
cold London winters. There was the old cabman in Kenning- 
ton Road with his bad feet and boots of immense size, who 
slithered along the road in a kind of hobbling crawl. Un- 
known, he was to provide the world with that wonderful 
marionette-like walk which Chaplin brought to perfection. 
The evil was turned into a kind of dancing humor. There 
were innumerable monsters, and Charles watched them all, 
taking comfort in mimicking them, and sometimes he would 
put on his mimicking acts in the pubs. With the money he 
would wander off to Baxter Hall, where he could see magic 
lantern shows for a penny, or to Kennington Baths where 
you could swim in the second-class bath for threepence if you 
brought your own swimming costume. His father died of 
alcoholism at St Thomas's Hospital on the Albert Embank- 
ment and was buried at Tooting, and for years afterwards 
the boy remembered watching the light in the unshuttered 
window of the ward where his father was lying. It was the 
first hard blow, and there were more to come. 

Penniless or almost penniless, making an occasional living 
by dressmaking, or sewing on buttons, the mother tried to 
keep her family together. There was another son, Sidney, the 
child of an earlier marriage. Sidney attended a merchant sea- 
man's training school, while Charles stayed at home, himself 
the main provider. Before Sidney went to sea he helped to 
cut suits for his brother out of the mother's theatrical ward- 


robe. On wet days Charles could be seen wearing a green 
plush mantle cut to the shape of an overcoat, and he went 
to school in a pair of his mother's cut-down tights. This was 
the time when he sold newspapers at Ludgate Circus and 
danced barefoot when he heard a barrel-organ playing, and 
he would collect some coppers for his dancing, to run laugh- 
ing away when the organ-grinder chased him. His mother's 
mind was already clouding with despair. Sometimes she 
would hold him up to the window, and there the boy watched 
with her the passing scene. With terrifying accuracy his 
mother could mimic the appearance of people as they came 
down the street: the school-teacher, the minister, the justice 
who crept past with his hands in his pockets and his face bent 
down to the earth. 

They were living then a stone's throw from Chester Street, 
where they lived before. It was a small street called Pownall 
Terrace, and they lived in a single top room. Down three 
flights of narrow stairs Charles would wander to remove the 
slops, or to go to Heeley's, the greengrocer in Chester Street, 
for a pennorth of pot herbs. Then there was Waghorn, the 
butcher, across the way, who supplied a pound of tuppenny 
pieces. A little coal, some stale cake from the grocers, some 
over-ripe eggs: it was on this kind of fare that they lived. 

One day, Charles returned home to find that the ambu- 
lance had come, and there were a crowd of children gathered 
round the house. The boy rushed up the stairs to find his 
mother gone. He learned that while he was away she had 
gone to all the neighbors with a little piece of coal in her 
hands. To them all she said: "I have brought you a pretty 

That was the end of Charles's stay in Lambeth for a while. 
He disappeared to an orphanage at Hanwell. There he passed 
the most miserable year of his life, completely alone, detest- 
ing the loneliness. At Christmas the children were given an 
orange and a bag of sweets. By sucking the sweets very gently 
he could make two of them last a fortnight; when autumn 


came, he still had some sweets left. Here he fed regularly, 
and no policemen came to remove his possessions for debt— 
once the police had taken everything except the mattress at 
Pownall Terrace, but there was nothing to do, no way of 
earning money, and in the end he could bear it no longer. 
He fled into the forest of London, slept on park benches, and 
at the age of eight he succeeded in joining a music-hall act 
called "The Eight Lancashire Lads." When this folded, he 
went to Hern Boys School for two years, and then ran away 
again, taking a small part in a play called "Giddy Ostend" at 
the London Hippodrome in January 1900. There followed 
three years of touring in a play based on one of the stories 
of Sherlock Holmes, with William Gillette in the lead and 
Charles Chaplin at the bottom of the list acting the part of 
Billy the office boy. In December 1904 he was one of the 
wolves in the first performance of Barrie's Peter Pan at the 
Duke of York's Theater in St Martin's Lane. He was now 
fifteen. His mother had recovered, and still occupied the 
horrible little room in Pownall Terrace. The boy was not al- 
ways affluent. In the intervals of acting he took odd jobs. For 
a while he was a lather boy. Later he took a job in a printing 
press. The first morning he came into the press wearing a 
second-hand morning coat and a wavy black tie. The cock- 
neys stopped the presses as soon as they saw him and shouted, 
"Morning, me lord!" The boy was furious. He had simply 
got together the best clothes he could put his hands on, be- 
cause he had been told to wear good clothes, but instead of 
showing his fury— he was white with shame and anger— he 
began to strut like a toff, and this pleased the printers. Out 
of that proud little strut and the shambling walk of an old 
cabman came Charlie's well-known walk. 

By the spring of 1906 Charles was already an experienced 
actor. He had acted up and down the country. For a brief 
while he had been an acrobat, till a heavy fall decided him 
against joining a circus. He had played in at least three dif- 
ferent plays performed at the Duke of York's Theatre, and 


he was beginning to be something of a success at the music- 
halls. His brother Sidney had returned from South Africa 
and was now his guardian. On May 26, 1906, Sidney Chaplin 
signed a contract for him, which read: 

I, the guardian of Charles Chaplin, agree for him to appear in 
"Casey's Court" wherever it may be booked in the British Isles 
only, the agreement to commence May 14, 1906, at a salary 
weekly of £2-5-0 (two pounds five shillings) increasing to £2-ios 
the week commencing July 1906. 

It was the first contract ever signed for him, and it led him 
to a mode of living far superior to anything he had known. 
Casey's Court brought him no more money than he had re- 
ceived when he was acting the part of Billy, for he earned 
exactly £2-10-0 in the Sherlock Holmes play, but now there 
was a steady income and the possibility of going abroad: it 
was not for nothing that Sidney Chaplin had inserted the 
words "in the British Isles only." Casey's Court consisted of 
a number of slap-happy imitations of public favorites, a kind 
of walking waxworks, and in this Chaplin was in his element. 
He could mimic anyone to perfection, and in any language, 
and by the spring of 1907 he was already clowning at the 
Cigale, the Folies-Bergeres and Olympia in Paris, and there 
he saw some of the early films of Max Linder. He was deeply 
impressed, but he had no intention of being a film actor. 

He returned to England, met Mrs Madge Kendal who in- 
vited him to her house and offered him an engagement for 
thirty-eight weeks but kept him waiting so long that he de- 
cided to punish her by refusing the engagement. Afterwards 
he was glad he refused. He had the makings of a straight ac- 
tor and a reverence for the legitimate stage. He was proud 
and cocky. He bought carpets and lanterns for his lodgings 
in Kennington, and began to read Schopenhauer. Blaise Cen- 
drars, then a juggler, later a novelist, lived in the same lodg- 
ing-house for a while and remembered him as a sallow youth 
with a ferocious quietness about him, who talked of making 


a career of medicine and explained that "everything is con- 
tained in Schopenhauer," and in the evenings they would 
appear on the same bill, Cendrars with his colored balls, 
Chaplin in his top-hat and jaunty tails. He noted that Chap- 
lin became an entirely different person when he stepped on 
the stage. Gone was the world-weariness and the biting 
tongue. He was all action, and, said Cendrars, "he had a way 
of kicking people which was wonderful to behold." There 
was a quickness in the stage Chaplin which reminded the 
Frenchman of the tongue of a chameleon. 

By this time Chaplin had already joined Fred Karno's 
troupe of knockabout comedians. Karno was busy mechan- 
ising the music-halls. There were about fifty music-halls al- 
together in London, and Karno pressed motorcars into his 
service and sent his actors to make four or five different turns 
on as many stages. There was very little of the Commedia 
dell' Arte in the Fred Karno comic tradition. His forte was 
farce, played at immense speed and with innumerable props; 
and Chaplin, who looked when he was off the stage rather 
like a modest student of medicine, did not resemble a knock- 
about comedian. At first Karno refused to employ him, but 
Sidney was already a member of the troupe, and on Sidney's 
advice he was given a few small parts. His first big part was 
in a skit called "The Football Match." Fast-paced, the skit 
called for a villain to bribe a goalkeeper to throw the game. 
The villain was Charles in a slouch hat and a small mus- 
tache. "Jimmy the Fearless" followed. Jimmy was a boy who 
dreamed of unimaginable feats of conquest. He woke up 
only when his father came in with a razor-strop and gave 
him a hiding. The feats of conquest were all mimicked, and 
Charles played it to the hilt, clowning through a whole series 
of imaginary adventures with cowboys and rescued prin- 
cesses. He played in twenty or thirty skits, but the one he 
liked best was "Mumming Birds," where he played the part 
of a drunken dude who continually interfered in the per- 
formances, went upon the stage, argued with the performers, 


insulted the musicians, the stage manager, the audience and 
the stagehands, always calm and self-possessed, with his cig- 
arette dangling from the corner of his lips and his top-hat 
at an angle, and sometimes blowing his nose on an immense 
handkerchief which he would wave with something of the 
effect of a matador waving a red flag to a bull. He played the 
part deadpan, with fastidious taste and incredible assurance, 
for he remained calm even when the audience was in a state 
of riot. Under the title "A Night at an English Music Hall" 
he played the same part during his first tour of America in 
1910-1911, he played it in France and in the Channel Islands 
in 1912, and he was still playing it in America when he re- 
turned in the late autumn of 1912. When he set out for 
America for the second time he had some faint inkling that 
it would be many years before he would return. The boy 
who had been a barefoot gutter-rat in the slums of Kenning- 
ton, who had slept in half the doss-houses of London and 
would never be able to forget their terrible smell, who read 
Schopenhauer until the inanity of the world seemed to creep 
up at him from the printed pages, was determined to con- 
quer America. "I give you warning," he announced to the 
Statue of Liberty, "I have come to conquer America." Four 
years later he had conquered the world. 

Chapter Eight 

The Coming of the Custard Pie 

VV hen Chaplin announced that he was 
about to conquer America he was uttering a prayer, the same 
prayer which has been whispered by a million other immi- 
grants as they catch sight of New York, for there is something 
about those towering pinnacles on the water's edge which 
summons a man to assume the attitude of a conqueror. But 
Chaplin's prayer was remarkable in that it was spoken against 
all the evidence. In New York he was faced with one fact of 
quite exceptional importance: everything he represented, 
his whole conception of comedy, the vast traditions going 
back to Grimaldi, Deburau and the Commedia dell' Arte, 
all these were hopelessly at odds with the American comic 

In America the pantomime never took root, and there was 
no equivalent to the music-hall. There was vaudeville, but 
vaudeville was an exotic plant which had grown feverishly 
and would soon die. There was slapstick and Negro minstrels 
and comic monologs. These were indigenous, but they had 
little in common with the complexities of the English comic 
stage. Vaudeville, which was born in 1883 and died of a lin- 
gering affliction in 1932 during the depression, originated 
with Benjamin Keith who was one of Barnum's assistants. 
He knew circus life, freak shows and some actors. Why not 


combine them all? So he opened the Gaiety Theatre in Bos- 
ton with a midget weighing one and a half pounds, a stuffed 
mermaid, and a few "turns," and prayed that this singular 
mixture would take care of his fortune. It did. Within five 
years there were vaudevilles in half the towns of America, 
and Barnum grew fearful of their popularity. To the very 
end vaudeville showed that freaks were as important as 

American vaudeville was garish, boisterous, friendly, ex- 
uberant; the shadow of Barnum hung over it; and it was a 
world away from the music-hall, with slapstick instead of 
Cockney wit to drive the fuse. The closest to the English 
tradition was probably Joe Cook who invented a bewildering 
kind of nonsensical double-talk and took the part of the mas- 
ter of ceremonies, wandering in and out of the "turns," be- 
stowing fatuous and irrelevant remarks about the state of 
the weather or the skills of the performers. He was the master 
of the completely irrelevant statement. He would take a pack 
of cards, fumble with it behind his back for five minutes 
while his fingers searched helplessly for the ace of spades, but 
the ace of spades never appeared; and while he fumbled he 
would explain at enormous length, in a patter as fast as an 
express train, that he absolutely refused to imitate four Ha- 
waiians playing the ukelele for the very good reason that the 
four Hawaiians— "How are you?" he would shout. "Well, 
how are you? Fine, how's yourself? Good. And you? Splen- 
did? How's your uncle? I haven't got an uncle? Fine, how 
is he?" He was trigger-happy and wonderful, but when he 
left the stage you felt drained of energy, and there was some- 
thing inhuman in the massive irrelevance of the man. 

Nat Wills was inhuman in another way. He played the 
part of the tramp, and something of his insane hilarity went 
into the picture which Chaplin finally drew of Charlie. He 
was a bum with a red nose, a slit mouth, a battered hat and 
baggy pants which he held together with a string; from this 
waist-string hung a tomato can, the most sacred of his pos- 


sessions. His boots were cracked, and his immense toes re- 
sembled bell-hammers: at the least provocation the toes 
would dance a jig of their own. His specialty was a tramp 
monolog, recounting his glorious thirsts, his joy in lying. He 
was splendid in his arrogance— the arrogance of a Wild Bill 
Hickok or a Paul Bunyan. 

There was more tenderness in Joe Jackson, who gravely 
took a bicycle to pieces and still more gravely attempted to 
put it together again. He patiently dissected the anatomy of 
a bicycle and held up for our astonished admiration the 
strange animated creatures who lurked within it. He could 
do more with a bicycle pump than anyone ever believed pos- 
sible. He had Jimmy Durante's mania for destruction, but 
with a slower fuse. 

The greatest of the clowns, though, was W. C. Fields whose 
bottle nose was not yet developed, and who tended towards 
elegance and liked being photographed leaning negligently 
on his billiard cue: the "turn" for which he first became fa- 
mous was a hilarious game of billiards where he made up 
the rules as he went along. Jimmy Durante tore a piano to 
pieces; W. C. Fields would have regarded the destruction of 
so small a thing as a piano as beneath his dignity. He was 
malice personified, pretended to no dignity and clearly loved 
no one but himself. His ambition was to be a juggler. In his 
early days he practiced juggling assiduously, until he per- 
fected his masterpiece, which was a trick of juggling twenty- 
four cigar-boxes on end with a little rubber ball on top. The 
cost was terrible. He practiced till his shins were bleeding 
and the tears were streaming down his face, and some of the 
anguish of those early years marked him still when he had 
achieved a place in the Hollywood sun, drinking his two 
quarts of gin a day, bullying everyone on the set, reserving 
his greatest malice for defenceless children and incompetent 
starlets: the black malice showed even when he wore check- 
ered trousers and a morning coat. But the force of his comic 
malice was such that he acquired a perfection in the art of 


mime which raised him above his fellows. Of the comics of 
his time he alone deserves to be ranked with Chaplin. 

Fields was the son of an English immigrant, and to the 
very end there was an English sense of intimacy in his per- 
formances. He had no mastery of wisecracks. It was the man- 
ner of the man, the blustering, boisterous charm of his idiocy, 
the senile twitch in his face, the resemblance to an over-ripe 
fruit, which attracted people to him. He was a throwback to 
Regency times, a shrivelled Beau Brummell with a dew-lap 
and little taste for shaving, roaring his perpetual complaints 
against the weather and the interference of people, always 
accusing the world of malice, though it was clear enough that 
he contained in his own person enough black bile to drown 
the world. Where Groucho Marx was purely synthetic, Fields 
was a natural, and his behavior off the stage was often indis- 
tinguishable from his behavior on it, so providing one more 
proof (if any was needed) that his malice arose from his ex- 
perience of the world, the conjured enemies who filled his 
dreams and against whom he waged an unceasing war. There 
was something devilish in Fields, as there was in Charlie. It 
is the absence of the devil which makes the modern stage so 

When Chaplin came to America the great days of vaude- 
ville were nearly over. He appeared at the old Hammer- 
stein's Theater in New York in A Night at an English 
Music-Hail, but he was not wildly successful. He went on 
tour. He was adored in Brooklyn and tolerated in Kansas. 
He went through the whole Karno repertoire, but his forte 
was the dude who lolls just below the stage and interrupts 
the performance with a wild contempt for performers and 
audience alike, forever scrambling with the musicians in the 
orchestra pit, the actors, the stage manager, the lady with the 
boa, smoking continually— he could suggest his massive con- 
tempt of the world with a single puff of his cigarette, a wiggle 
of his finger, and when he marched on the stage the welling 


anger on the pale face assumed the proportions of the un- 
earthly anger of the Greek tragic heroes. 

A refined version of A Night at an English Music-Hall ap- 
peared in the two-part Essanay comedy, A Night at the Show. 
In this film, as in The Great Dictator, he deliberately split 
himself in two, becoming the contemptuous dude near the 
orchestra rail and the besotted rowdy with the walrus mus- 
tache in the gallery whose loathing leads him to turn the fire- 
hose on the whole assembly. But all this came later. 

Chaplin on tour maintained the tradition of the English 
music-hall, and saw no reason to change it for an American 
audience. There were appreciative notices, but there was no 
outpouring of praise. He earned fifty dollars a week, which 
was considerably more than the three pounds a week he 
earned in England. When Mack Sennett telegraphed to his 
eastern representative: "Get in touch with a fellow called 
Chapman or Chamberlain— something like that— playing sec- 
ond circuit," no one knew where he was, and it was some 
time before the agent caught up with him and found him 
playing in Oil City, Pennsylvania. Mack Sennett had seen 
A Night at an English Music-Hall in New York, and he was 
impressed with the unruly actor who defied the conventions 
of the theatre. The telegram reached Chaplin in May 1913. 
He immediately went to New York where he was interviewed 
by Adam Kessel and explained that he was on contract and 
would not be able to leave his company before the end of 
the year. He was offered seventy-five dollars a week, the usual 
salary for an unknown comedian on the Keystone lot. Chap- 
lin demurred. There was not so very much difference be- 
tween his salary in vaudeville and the salary offered by 
Keystone. They offered a year's contract. To go to Keystone 
meant cutting himself off from Karno's troupe. He knew 
nothing about films. He had never known such security as 
he received during his vaudeville tour before. Why go to Los 
Angeles? He possessed absolutely no assurance that he had 
the makings of a film comedian, and what would happen 


when the year was over? In the end he accepted the offer 
only because Adam Kessel, outraged by Chaplin's I-don't- 
care-whether-I-do attitude, offered him a year's contract at 
one hundred and twenty-five dollars a week. It was the high- 
est price Mack Sennett had ever paid to a beginner, and 
afterwards he confessed: "I don't know why I did it. I wasn't 
too hopeful. He was English all the way through, but he 
could make you laugh till you cried." 

Mack Sennett in 1913 was at the height of his powers. It 
was the time of Roscoe Arbuckle, Hank Mann, Chester Conk- 
lin, Rube Miller and Ford Sterling. They were superb mimes, 
comedians by instinct, incapable of lowering themselves to 
whatever is the pantomime equivalent of a wisecrack, the 
arch gesture or the calculated applause. The humor was phys- 
ical and robust. They went out after it like happy warriors. 
They had no tidy props, no big budgets, no elaborate sets; 
the scripts were very apt to be written down on someone's 
cuffs, though Mack Sennett has confessed to writing scripts 
eight or nine pages long. The scripts were usually torn up 
half way through. The theme of all the Keystone comedies- 
altogether there were about nine hundred of them— was sim- 
ple. Out of whatever props and actors lay at hand, the utmost 
confusion was made to flower. The aim was a mounting cre- 
scendo of madness. The theory behind it all was the same 
theory which produced the vaudeville: if you mix up a cir- 
cus, a freak-show and a number of comic turns you get a 
Keystone comedy. A little later the bathing belles were added. 
They arrived by accident. Mack Sennett decided that the 
presence of bathing belles close to the comedians inspired 
the newspapers to reproduce more photographs from his 
films. The fabulous mad rush in which cops, comedians and 
bathing belles all contributed was equally accidental. It had 
simply happened one day during a street scene that the police 
interfered. They began to chase the actors and directors who 
had roped off a part of Hollywood Boulevard, and the cam- 
eraman had continued to photograph the chase with a hidden 


camera. Afterwards, when the film was run through, the 
chase by the cops was seen to be more amusing than the orig- 
inal street scene. From that moment the Keystone Cops were 
invented. If Mabel Normand had not rushed out into the 
street with a doll in her arms and thrust it into the arms of 
a total stranger, if an excited mob had not then gathered, if 
the cops had not thought that the crowd was menacing the 
safety of Hollywood Boulevard, and if at that moment a 
parade had not passed down the street, so adding to the re- 
sulting confusion, it is likely that there never would have 
been the Keystone Cops. They were born out of the confu- 
sion of those early days when films were still taken by a 
photographer who turned a crank and Hollywood Boulevard 
was thought to be as good a stage as any other. 

The crowning accident, the most beautiful and the most 
accidental of accidents, was the discovery of the custard pie. 
The coming of the custard pie gave an added dimension to 
comedy and entailed a complete revision of the comic stand- 
ards of the time. Henceforward whenever the comedy lagged 
there was always the possibility of keeping it in motion by 
a well-aimed pie. 

The coming of the custard pie occurred early in 1913. No 
one remembers the precise date, which is a pity, for it is a 
date of considerable significance in the history of the cinema. 
But the circumstances are well-known. It happened that Ben 
Turpin, whose walrus mustache and insignificant cross eyes 
were merely the outward decorations of a refined and re- 
sourceful comedian, was ordered by Mack Sennett to thrust 
his head through a door. 

"You're not funny," Mack Sennett objected. 

"Shall I uncross my eyes?" Ben Turpin asked, unhelpfully. 

"No, just be funny. Do your damndest to be funny." 

Ben Turpin tried. He glared, he opened his mouth, he 
closed his mouth, he wiggled his walrus mustache, but he was 
a signal failure. In desperation he rolled his cross eyes, but 
the director only groaned. They worked until late afternoon, 


their tempers fraying. Suddenly from out of nowhere a cus- 
tard pie sailed over the camera to land squarely on Ben Tur- 
pin's face. The camera crew and everyone on the set howled. 
It was funny enough when Ben Turpin was smacked by the 
custard pie, but it was funnier still when he attempted to un- 
stick the thing from his face and blinked pitifully through 
the mess. 

''Who sent the custard pie?" Mack Sennett asked. 

"I, with my little pie," Mabel Normand answered. "I 
threw the pie." 

The subtle refinements inherent in pie-throwing remained 
to be explored. Considerable advances were made that eve- 
ning. It was decided that the beauty of the throwing resulted 
from the softness of the dough, the large amplitude of the 
pie, the firm stance and careful aim of the thrower. Roscoe 
Arbuckle was on the set. He had the strength and accuracy 
of a good baseball player; he became the acknowledged mas- 
ter. Even Chaplin, who possessed an excellent stance and con- 
siderable stamina, failed to rival him; nor could Chaplin 
like Arbuckle throw a pie with unerring aim in two direc- 
tions at once or round corners. Chaplin had chosen the time 
of his arrival in Los Angeles well. He came in the full tide 
of the custard pies. 

Though Mack Sennett could not claim that he invented 
the custard pie or the Keystone Cops, he could claim a fair 
share in inventing the forms of film comedy. An ex-boiler- 
maker and a former actor (he once played the hind legs of 
a horse), he was himself the most reckless of men, expending 
his own and every one else's energies at a furious pace. He 
had one, and only one basic tenet: "Always keep the comic 
on the wrong end of the gun." He meant, of course, the right 
end, the end the bullet comes out of. The process of comedy 
was a simple one: the comedian must be shot to pieces, and 
everyone else in sight must be shot to pieces with him. He 
could appraise lucidly the exact speed, the exact stance for 
a stern skid— Mabel Normand, who was adept at all forms 


of comedy, was particularly adept at the stern skid; and he 
possessed a clairvoyant's tact in arranging that the accidental 
should be put to the service of comedy. He had a Russian 
cameraman who hoped to save film by turning the crank 
slowly. The effect was magnificent, for when the film was 
screened, the slow paces of the heavy, blundering Ford Ster- 
ling were transformed into quick dancing steps. Sennett was 
the first to manipulate camera speeds, and the first to intro- 
duce the maneuver known as "the zig-zag rally," which is like 
nothing which has ever existed on earth. "The zig-zag rally" 
is the technical name of the scene in which cops, children, 
animals, lumbering old men, bathing belles and everyone 
else who happens to be on the set takes part in a mad chase. 
The Keystone chase is not naturalistic. It follows a prescribed 
pattern. As the mob flees from the camera it is seen to sway 
from side to side. In the Keystone comedies no posse of po- 
licemen running down a road is ever seen to run in a straight 
line. They must move sideways as well, like billiard balls 
smacking off the cushions, in a bouncing motion which re- 
flected something of Mack Sennett's own zest for comedy. 
Also, he was vulgar. He liked to have his comedians paddle 
the backsides of bathing belles. He called all pretty girls 
"girlie," and he had a pleasant habit of smacking his lips as 
he said the word. 

Partly, it was the vulgarity of his time, a time of leers and 
winks and ferocious sexual appetites. Lovers were expected 
to tumble in bed, not to lie down gracefully beside a prop 
fireplace. Since the players had to act with their bodies, and 
every gesture had to be driven home, there was no need for 
subtle shadings. The cops for the most part were portly Irish- 
men; Mack Sennett made them more portly, larger than life. 
The contrast between evil and innocence was assured by giv- 
ing the comedians light-colored clothes while the cops were 
always dressed in padded black. It was the time before the 
gag-man and the light verbal charades were invented. Where 
Gregory Peck expresses his emotions through a quiver of his 


Adam's apple, those pre-war actors expressed emotions by a 
wild flailing of the arms, and if they were asked why they 
behaved in this way, they would have answered: "What are 
arms for?" But while the bit players were taught to under- 
score emotions, the truly great clowns like Harry Langdon 
and Buster Keaton preserved a fatuous deadpan. Nothing 
ever surprised them. They were drained of emotion, callous, 
untouched. To them was given the power of passing through 
all emotions undisturbed. It was the same with Roscoe Ar- 
buckle and Ben Turpin, for though there were occasions 
when they expressed their emotions emphatically, they were 
capable of long withdrawn silences as they gazed entranced 
upon a world whose orgies they never shared. Roscoe Ar- 
buckle, in particular, possessed a Chinese suavity, and he 
rarely showed more emotion than is shown on the face of a 
trained seal. Ben Turpin might be tortured on a pirate ship, 
thrown overboard, picked out of the water with grappling 
irons; at most there would be a faint stirring of some of the 
hairs of his precocious walrus mustache. A whole gallery of 
fastidious palefaced heroes was invented, all demonstrating 
that they were impervious to harm, and Chaplin merely fol- 
lowed the accepted tradition. By emphasising the heroic 
calm of the chief comedian Sennett had hit upon one of his 
most resourceful tricks. The idea was not new. It may not 
have been new even when Deburau was walking the Theatre 
des Funambules, giving the impression that he alone had in- 
vented absolute silence and immobility, a godlike untouch- 
ability. The deadpan face was a commonplace among comic 
recitals on the vaudeville stage, but it was the cinema which 
first exploited the possibilities of deadpan in all its complex- 
ity, for the close shot provided another dimension. A close 
shot of Harry Langdon or Charlie gave them the appearance 
of marble. They were beyond the reach of this world, yet 
partakers in its joys. They were more like marionettes than 
men. But while their faces were impassive, their arms flailed 
and their bodies remained in feverish movement. From a 


study of those faces shining with a godlike calm, it would 
be reasonable to deduce that the ancient Greeks were right 
when they insisted that their comic actors should wear masks. 
For these intoxicated white-faced clowns, descendants of 
Deburau, their remoteness giving their smallest gesture the 
impact of a steam-hammer, words were a hindrance. They 
found their humor in situation, in posture, in sudden leaps, 
in improbable adventures, in madcap rallies and furious ex- 
plosions of temper. The dexterity was physical and spiritual, 
not verbal. The words were left to the idiots who wrote the 
captions. They were rarely brilliant, and mostly they were 
downright careless. "Came the dawn" is almost the worst, but 
Mack Sennett perpetrated a number of equally childish cap- 
tions, and unbelievably childish titles. He called one film 
The Battle of Who Run and another Uncle Tom without 
the Cabin. Such heavy verbal by-play was characteristic of 
the times; and the captions of Chaplin's early films, and some 
of his later ones, full of atrocious puns and double-entendres, 
were no worse than Sennett's. Concerned with comic action, 
not with words, they fumbled when they came to captions, 
but they were not entirely responsible for their errors. The 
times demanded that kind of word-play. Today, you can still 
see at Venice, California, in one of the exhibits on the fair- 
ground, those crazy notices which reflect the passing of an 





There are many more of these relics of an age which has 
passed. The most boorish of us can hardly be expected to 
take any fun in these things now, perhaps because the head- 
lines with the flames and the smoke pouring out of them 


have given us a new respect for words, or simply because the 
fashion has changed. It was the time of the mutascope and 
the hour-glass figure, of waxed mustaches and the bathing 
costume shaped like a miniature tent. The heavy-handed 
verbal play was no more than decoration. The heart of the 
mystery was something very simple and recognisable: a pale- 
faced impassive clown teetering on the edge of nowhere. 

In Mack Sennett's films produced before the arrival of 
Chaplin, the chief clown was played by Ford Sterling. How 
Sterling came to be accepted as a comic, or why anyone 
thought him to be amusing, is a question best left unsettled. 
Heavily built, pompous, Germanic to the roots, his face re- 
sembled a knuckle of beef. He had none of Ben Turpin's 
steady defiance of the laws of gravity, but he possessed a cer- 
tain dexterity, the same kind of dexterity which was em- 
ployed by King Kong on the Empire State building. He 
belonged to the age of Prince Albert hats and guffaws and 
HUNG FA TOO LO, and he was gradually losing his pop- 
ularity, for the age was changing. Sennett hardly knew which 
way the wind was blowing. He progressed by a series of ac- 
cidents, but the accidental was beginning to follow a fixed 
pattern. The pale, the dapper, the gentle clowns were begin- 
ning to take the place of raw beef. There was Max Linder, 
whose delicacy and tact owed much to Deburau. There was 
the young Frank Capra, already a director. There were Ray- 
mond Griffith, Mai St. Clair, Harold Lloyd, Eddie Suther- 
land, George Marshall, all names to be reckoned with. Above 
all there was Mack Sennett, a man who regarded custard 
pies and crowds of flat-footed cops with the deadly earnest- 
ness they deserved. Then in one fabulous year Chaplin was 
to take the established tradition and mould it into something 
closer to his heart. From the dark roads of London and the 
guttersnipes who haunted Lambeth and Kennington; from 
the huge derision of Grimaldi; from the silence of Deburau; 
from the ferocious battles of the Keystone comics— there 
emerged Charlie. 

Chapter Nine 

The Fabulous Year 

.LJuring 1914 Chaplin performed in thirty- 
five films. Twenty-two or twenty-three he directed himself. 
Such huge output was never to be reached again. It was as 
though, in the first burst of enthusiasm for the new medium, 
he was determined to explore all the possibilities of the 
strange character he had invented, to see him in all lights and 
to follow him through all conceivable adventures. As we look 
back on those thirty-five films we see them haunted with the 
shapes of Monsieur Verdoux, the Great Dictator and the 
gold-miner of the Alaskan adventure, and we can even dis- 
cern the ghostly features of the Kid. After the Keystone com- 
edies, the rest is decoration. 

The world as Charlie sees it in the Keystone comedies has 
one central point of reference— the ashcan, which is always 
near by, straight in front or just round the corner. Charlie 
half adores ashcans. He will sleep in them, hide in them, 
jump in them, and he knows his way all round them. Later 
he will take to sleeping in dog-kennels and even in doss- 
houses, but this is clearly only a temporary measure— the 
ashcan waits him at the end of the road. As he wanders from 
one ashcan to another with an immortal patience, he intends 
to extract as much amusement as possible from life, and he 
will even occasionally interrupt his wanderings to take a 



temporary job. He has learned patience in a hard school; it 
never leaves him. Watch how slowly, how patiently, he climbs 
the innumerable stairs from his pigeon-hole to the skyscraper 
office in The New Janitor. A bell has rung. Charlie must 
trudge up the stairs with his mop and pail. He puts one foot 
forward, and then the other, but he is in no hurry. Only 
when he sees the robber does he move with lightning speed. 
Then he is all fire! Pan awakes from his dream, twists the 
revolver from the man's hand and frightens him into sub- 
mission by suddenly turning his back and threatening the 
man with a revolver pointed through his legs. Faced with the 
strange spectacle of Charlie bending down with a revolver 
between his knees, the robber surrenders. In all this Charlie 
resembles the gay conquistador Astolfo in Boiardo's Orlando 
Innamorato, eternally surprised by his own accomplishments. 
Boiardo's immense epic is rarely read nowadays. It is a 
pity, for the strait-laced octets of this fifteenth-century 
verse drama have a chivalric sweep and they march with 
precise gusto through a wonderfully embroidered tale of 
heroism. Astolfo is an English carpet-knight, with nothing 
of the look of the hero about him. He is weak, gentle, polite 
to everyone. He has no special skill, but he possesses an abid- 
ing love for danger and plunges recklessly where even the 
giants fear to tread, with never-failing humor and dauntless 
courage. Everyone is sorry for him, and everyone admires 
him. By accident the enchanted lance of Argalia falls into 
his hands just before he is sent out to fight the giant Gran- 
donio. No one expected him to survive. Astolfo did not know 
he possessed the magic sword. As he went out to take part 
in the tournament, everyone expected him to be brought 
back dead, and everyone acknowledged that in offering to 
sacrifice his life he was only showing his loyalty to Charle- 
magne. "Let someone else come to his aid," they cried. Then, 
to Astolfo's intense surprise, he unseats the enemy and wins 
the victory, and immediately afterwards he is saying that this 
was exactly what he expected, it was the most natural thing 


in the world, it would be absurd if a Christian knight could 
not kill a mere paynim. Without rancor to anyone, light- 
hearted always, conscious of his own powers, Astolfo goes 
jauntily through the whole epic; and even when he is thrust 
into prison by Charlemagne or surrounded by treacherous 
knights, he refuses to indulge in recriminations. Nothing 
quite like this figure of the happy knight appears in the 
Morte D' Arthur. Astolfo is only a minor character in the 
Orlando Innamorato, but on that dancing figure Boiardo 
has cast the gentle light of grace and high adventure. There 
is a deep kinship between Charlie and Astolfo, though 
Charlie's lance may be no more than his twitching bamboo 

As for Charlie's private life, there are few secrets. The 
lonely knight of the faith wanders from doss-house to doss- 
house. In love with Mabel Normand, he will never possess 
her any more than the mediaeval knight possesses the prin- 
cess to whom he dedicates his life. She will drop him a billet- 
doux, flirt with him, even kiss him occasionally, but she will 
never run away with him. In the pitiless world where he lives 
few rewards are offered for heroism. It is true that in The 
New Janitor Charlie receives a wad of bank-notes, which he 
counts excessively carefully, but the bank-notes are hardly 
more than stage props, and he will be back with his mop and 
slop-bucket the next day. The true and unattainable prize 
is Miss Normand, who is all youth and gaiety. A year later, 
in The Jitney Elopement, he rides off with her in a dilap- 
idated Ford pursued by her father and the inevitable Count 
Chloride de Lime, who had been offered her hand. The film 
ends in a mad chase, with Charlie throwing brickbats at the 
pursuing car, but we know that the father will catch up with 
them, and the woman will remain unattainable and virgin, 
the world's enchantress, as Charlie is the world's imp, be- 
holden neither to Charlie nor to Count Chloride de Lime. 

Though there are no secrets concerning Charlie, there are 
occasional red herrings. Once he is depicted as being married 


to Mabel Normand. He even has a child which he forgets to 
feed and carries by the scruff of his rompers. Miss Normand 
scolds him when he returns from a restaurant after finding in 
his coat pocket a letter which reads: "My dearest Snooky 
Ookums, meet me at 3 a.m." There is a great to-do about the 
letter and the coat which Charlie picked up by accident in 
the restaurant, and after a wild chase in the park he is thrown 
into an ashcan, to emerge in time for the park photographer 
to take a photograph of him smiling on the bench with Mabel 
Normand beside him and the child on his shoulder. It is a 
pleasing photograph, but we are permitted to doubt whether 
the marriage was more than a dream-marriage. We suspect 
there is subterfuge somewhere. The film is called His Tryst- 
ing Place, but there is no tryst except the eternal tryst with 
the ashcan. Charlie is at home in the empty streets and the 
crowded doss-houses; most of all he is at home when he has 
a mop and pail in his hand, and goes about his business. He 
was born to be a nightwatchman or a janitor. He is happy 
with his sweepings, the oily water in the pail, the forgotten 
things lumped together and thrown down the chute. Erratic 
as a chauffeur, incompetent as a boxing referee, awkward as 
a lover, a perverse scene-shifter, he is at his full powers as a 

Half way through that fabulous year, in a film called 
Laughing Gas, Charlie appears as a kind of janitor to Dr. 
Pain, the Dentist. Now it happens that dentistry is a subject 
which has long haunted clowns, and Charlie has always de- 
sired to practise the art. The task of the dentist is a suitably 
intimate one; he has the patient at his mercy; what more 
could he desire? The dentist appears in a script by Flaminio 
Scala written for the Commedia dell' Arte. The story begins 
with a mad fight between Pedrolino and Pantalone. Pedro- 
lino is bitten in the arm. The arm swells. To take his mind 
from the swelling arm he is told that the cause of all his wor- 
ries is his bad breath, and to this Pedrolino weakly assents, 
for he discovers that everyone is complaining of his breath. 


With complete seriousness he goes up to all his acquaintances, 
asking them if it is true that his breath is so bad. They all 
peer into his mouth and expound on his halitosis. They want 
to help him. He wants to be helped. They suggest remedies. 
Pedrolino begs them not to reveal his plight to his daughter, 
but when he returns to his house his daughter is the first to 
tell him that he is evil-smelling, and so he finally consents 
to go to the dentist. There, of course, four good teeth are 
pulled out, and Pantalone is the dentist disguised with a wig 
and the scene ends as they fight, with all the furniture broken, 
and they scream at each other like cats, while Pedrolino 
waves the wig and hops on one foot and holds his hand to 
his broken mouth. 

The dentist in the Commedia dell' Arte is a savage; so he 
is in Laughing Gas. But there are important differences. In 
the Commedia delV Arte the movement of the comedy is to- 
wards a predetermined end. There is a slow fuse, and a final 
explosion. In Laughing Gas the fuse is continually splutter- 
ing and behaving a little like a Chinese cracker, and though 
the end is a free-for-all, the end is the least important thing 
about the story, and indeed seems to have been added as an 
afterthought or in obedience to Mack Sennett's wishes. 

Laughing Gas begins with Charlie entering the dentist's 
office. He is very sprightly, impeccably dressed, though a lit- 
tle battered. He seems to be the dentist or at least the den- 
tist's chief assistant, for he looks sadly at the patients, counts 
them, removes his gloves, bows, rubs his hands and then picks 
up the cuspidor. His exact position in the dentist's chambers 
is never made quite clear. He is "the man who picks up the 
cuspidor," a general factotum, a man with a grievance. We 
are never told exactly what the grievance is. He picks a quar- 
rel with the dentist's assistant, fights with him and at the 
moment after they have shaken hands, Charlie clips him over 
the head. He is called in when one of the dentist's patients 
falls unconscious from the gas. Charlie picks up the man's 
foot and listens to the heartbeats, then picks up a mallet and 


taps the man on the skull. Immediately the patient has a 
laughing jag. Charlie is thereupon sent out with a prescrip- 
tion, but he forgets the prescription in admiration of the 
dentist's wife, who loses her skirt and reveals her balloony 
bloomers when she rushes up some steps to avoid Charlie. The 
dentist is summoned home. The patient is still having a 
laughing jag. Charlie returns with the prescription, or he 
has failed to find it— the prescription was, after all, no more 
than an excuse to get Charlie out of the dentist's office— and 
now the patients are all crowding to be attended to, and in- 
evitably Charlie must choose the most handsome and delight- 
ful of them all. Meanwhile the dentist's wife is still bewailing 
the loss of her skirt and refuses to be comforted by the den- 
tist. There must be retribution. Charlie must be punished 
for the indignity she has suffered. She does not know that 
Charlie can never be punished, and that if there is ever any 
question of indignities, he is more capable of making other 
people suffer them than of suffering them himself. He is 
charming to his new patient, lifts up her chair, cleans her 
boots, throws one foot over her lap and peers into her mouth. 
Heaven has sent him a magnificent gift. He is almost crazy 
with happiness. He trips over a spittoon, but the patient is 
still there, smiling, leaning back in the chair, waiting for 
his attentions. He lifts the pair of pincers, studies them, pon- 
ders what to do with them and at last hits on the true, the 
incontrovertible solution— he will use them to hold her nose 
while he kisses her mouth. Afterwards the dentist returns, 
and there is the battle royal. 

As in so many of the Keystone films there are only mo- 
ments when Charlie is fully alive. The moment when he 
enters the dentist's office and picks up the cuspidor, the long 
moments when he gazes lovingly into the patient's mouth, 
the moment when he returns to the dentist's office and looks 
at the assembled patients with arch surprise, bewildered by 
that blossoming of beards and cadaverous freaks. But with 
what explicit understanding of the world's ways does he dem- 


onstrate that he is not himself a freak, with what abandon 
does he choose his patient and with what sly hints of am- 
atory experience does he wield his forceps! 

Laughing Gas is atrociously put together. All the scenes 
in which Charlie and Slim Summerville hurl brickbats at 
one another might have been taken from another film. There 
is no rhyme or reason in them. The scene sags whenever 
Charlie is off the stage; it sometimes sags when he is on the 
stage, for there are moments when the slapstick is beyond 
control; there are odd experiments in brutality, inexplicable 
contortions which do not spring from the untrammelled 
soul of the clown but from the American slapstick tradition, 
that rough and ready tradition which encouraged everything 
explosive in life. But the charm of Charlie is that he refuses 
generally to partake in uncontrolled explosions. He has his 
own explosiveness to contend with. At such moments he is 
like the winking eye of the hurricane, calm in the midst of 
turbulence, impatient only for more calm, for a greater 
safety from the intolerance and turbulence of things. 

Shortly after Laughing Gas there appeared a film in which 
Charlie's turbulence was at its height. This film was called 
The Face on the Bar-Room Floor, and was based on H. An- 
toine D'Arcy's bromidic elegy which begins: 

'Twas a balmy summer's evening and a goodly 

crowd was there, 
Which well-nigh filled Joe's bar-room on the 

corner of the square; 
And as songs and witty ditties came through 

the open door, 
A vagabond crept slowly in and posed upon the 


The miserable vagabond, who seems to come in like the drift 
of leaves, is given a drink and asked for a song, but instead 
he offers to tell the story of his lovelorn life. He was an ar- 
tist, by his own account a good artist who once painted a pic- 


ture called "The Chase of Fame" which he sold for fifteen 
hundred pounds. Most of the money was squandered on a 
woman called Madeline. Then, one afternoon in May, when 
he was painting "a fair-haired boy, a friend of mine, who 
lived across the way," Madeline entered the studio, and 
within a year she had run away with the fair-haired boy. The 
bar-room guests are deeply affected, wipe their tears away 
and watch attentively when the vagabond draws Madeline's 
face on the bar-room floor: 

Another drink and with chalk in hand, 

the vagabond began 
To sketch a face that might buy the soul 

of any man, 
Then, as he placed another lock upon the 

shapely head, 
With a fearful shriek he leaped and fell 

across the picture— dead. 

Such is the story, and six or seven generations have either 
wept or laughed themselves sick over the fate of the name- 
less vagabond. Today, there are more rooms in Colorado and 
New Mexico bearing the genuine imprint of "the face on the 
bar-room floor" than there are beds in New England that 
Washington slept in. 

Chaplin, of course, turns the whole story upside down. 
Charlie is the homeless waif with the sob-story. He is given 
his drink. He leans drunkenly over the bar-counter and tells 
the story in flashbacks, and when the girl leaves him he is 
overwhelmed by her parting words: "Goodbye, you great 
hunk of a man, and remember not to fall on your feet." Yes, 
this is what hurt him. If only she had said farewell tenderly! 
She had no regard for his sensibilities. Back in the bar, he 
chokes out his sobs and gravely commands the bartender to 
give him more drinks. Then we flash back to Charlie's chance 
meeting with the couple some years later in a park, both of 
them harassed now, a typical unhappy middle-class couple 


with four unruly children, and Charlie gazes after them with 
the expression of celestial bliss which a fly offers to a spider 
after escaping from the web. But in the bar he is still chok- 
ing with sobs. Offered a chalk he begins to draw the face of 
the beloved on the floor at the moment when a violent brawl 
breaks out. But what he draws is not a face. Desperately, ur- 
gently, savagely, crawling all over the floor like an enormous 
insect, Charlie draws a whole series of noughts and crosses. It 
is the first of the great daemonic moments. Suddenly the 
comedy stops still on the tracks. It is a moment unbearable in 
its intensity. There is Charlie's quiet calculated savagery as 
he depicts the zero faces of Madeline, and all round him 
there is the hurricane. But it is the hard winking eye at the 
center of the hurricane, the remorseless drunk reducing all 
the faces of the world to an irresponsible zero, which hurts. 
It is not tragedy nor is it comedy. Some new, remorseless 
element has entered into the pattern. Suddenly Pan has 
shrieked. If we ask ourselves why he has shrieked there is no 
explanation. It is not contempt for the world or lovesickness 
or drunkenness; it was simply that it had to be; and though 
the shriek is never heard so loud again, and Charlie is an 
adept at muffling it, we are always aware that it may break 
out; it is the threat he hangs over the world. 

Charlie's capacity to imitate the absolute dead center of 
the hurricane was repeated in The Rounders, which ap- 
peared in September. It begins harmlessly enough with two 
couples in confronting hotel bedrooms arguing bitterly. 
Doors burst open, the screaming continues and each couple 
attempts to out-scream the other. Charlie's wife is a haggard 
fish-jawed matron. Charlie knocks her down, but she throws 
him on the bed— Charlie's prodigious leap into the bed, end- 
ing with a sudden twist and twirl of his feet round the bed- 
rail is a masterpiece of sudden and unexpected clowning 
comparable with his leap up the curtains in The Great Dic- 
tator. This is no longer slapstick, but the purest of fantastic 
inventions, and all the more wonderful because immediately 


afterwards the slapstick resumes. Eventually the two harassed 
husbands— the other is Roscoe Arbuckle— teeter off to escape 
from their wives, Charlie having first purloined the money 
in his wife's purse. They are weary of the world's indignities. 
They come to a restaurant, and the faces of the guests merely 
have the effect of increasing their weariness. They discuss 
what they will do. The band plays. Some of the guests are 
dancing. Clearly, one should join the dance. So they dance 
together for a while, falling in each other's arms, and sud- 
denly they will dance no longer; they lie down on the floor, 
pull the table-cloths over them and go to sleep, that deep 
sleep which is permitted to clowns alone, and they would 
have continued to sleep on forever at the dead center of the 
hurricane if their wives had not arrived. The chase is re- 
sumed. Always in search of rest, they find themselves on the 
shores of a lake. A canoe is waiting. They jump into it. Along 
the bank come the screaming hordes of people they have an- 
noyed at the restaurant. They laugh. They are out of harm's 
way. They throw the oars away with a careless gesture of dis- 
dain for all mechanical implements and all progress, and lie 
down happily in the bottom of the boat, only rising occasion- 
ally to mock the people on the bank. The boat springs a leak. 
They are quite untroubled. Above all they must find the 
rest which has been promised to them. They lie down peace- 
fully while the water rises, but the rising water disturbs them 
not at all. Finally, they sink below the surface of the lake and 
there is only Charlie's battered top-hat floating on the waves 
to mark their graves. 

Not all the Keystone films were so magnificently centered 
upon great and tragic themes. Caught in a Cabaret, the 
twelfth film, was largely concerned with exploring the world 
of facetiousness. It is difficult to believe that a film could be 
more facetious, more concerned with a deadly sequence of 
puns. Punning was part of the English tradition, and the 
English have always been adepts at it, and Chaplin has en- 
couraged them to his heart's content. If the worst of his puns 


occurs in the opening title of the comparatively late Pay Day, 
where the screen title is immediately followed by the words: 
"Hard-Shirking Man," the puns in Caught in a Cabaret are 
nearly as ferocious. 

The film opens with Charlie walking his dog near a side- 
walk fountain tumbling over rocks into a gutter. Charlie 
gently edges the dog's backside into the stream of water, 
explaining: "I have to cool him off. He is built too near the 
hot sidewalks." The explanation fools nobody. When he is 
asked about the pedigree of the dog, he answers: "Spitz!" 
Soon afterwards the dog is caught in a fight with another dog, 
and Charlie finds himself fighting a bully in defence of Mabel 
Normand, who invites him to her house for a tete-a-tete. 
Charlie says: "Certainly, if you have any on ice," and offers 
his card which bears armorial bearings with the inscription: 
Ad lib moritorium sub rosa and identifies him as "Ambas- 
sador for Greece, O. T. Axle." Mabel Normand invites him 
to her forthcoming garden-party, delighted with her dis- 
covery. "Fancy a real ambassador," she explains, holding the 
visiting card to her breast. "He must be the man all the 
hotels are named after." All this is bad enough, and there is 
worse to come. Charlie arrives late at the garden-party wear- 
ing a top-hat. He apologises for his late arrival, saying his 
Rolls Royce has unfortunately broken down. For a brief mo- 
ment the whole unhappy mess of puns and facetiousness is 
jettisoned while Charlie, having led Mabel Normand to a 
secluded part of the garden, makes frantic love to her. It is 
a beautiful scene. Charlie takes full advantage of her inno- 
cence, grins shyly to himself, rests his elbow on her bosom, 
throws one leg over her, smiles as he has never smiled before, 
lights a cigarette, chokes, takes the whole wine-bottle when 
the servant brings the wine-cups, and finally hurries away 
with the explanation that "nothing but the affairs of Greece 
would take me away from you tonight." This small scene is 
magisterially performed, but the extraordinary air of reality 
which is conjured around the bench where Charlie makes 


his impassioned declarations of love vanishes when the cam- 
era turns to observe the guests at the garden party. Most of 
them are freaks. All of them are wildly alarmed by Charlie's 
behavior. Only Mabel Normand is charmed. ''Isn't he won- 
derful," she comments. "So full of stagger and swagger." As 
a description of Charlie's behavior the statement is untrue, 
and about as misleading as the statement that the garden is 
"redolent with the perfume of roses and home brew." We 
are not to be misled by these heavy verbal intrusions. They 
reach depths of unhappy inanity which one would have 
thought unreachable. When Charlie says: "I'll kick him so 
hard he'll need shock absorbers in his auto-suggestion," we 
know that there is no limit to inanity. But inanity is not 

The comedy is resumed when we discover Charlie at work 
as an unhappy drudge and waiter in a cheap restaurant. This 
explains, if we needed any explanation, the references to 
Greece. Charlie had offended Mabel's suitor, who has the 
brilliant idea of taking all the guests at the garden-party 
slumming "to see the great unwashed." Providentially they 
arrive at the restaurant where Charlie is working. They take 
their places. Charlie, against his wishes, is ordered to serve 
them. He spills everything he is carrying over the suitor, and 
accidentally knocks Mabel down. The battle royal begins. 
Custard pies are thrown, someone fires a gun, everyone is 
running in all directions, and in the end Charlie finds him- 
self in Mabel's arms. "I may be only a waiter," he explains, 
"but remember Bismarck was only a herring." 

Caught in a Cabaret was followed immediately by Caught 
in the Rain. Once again we are confronted with the incred- 
ible mixture of slapstick and something so quiet, so terrify- 
ing that it belongs to genius. Charlie meets a lady in the park, 
and is delighted with her. He smiles, primps himself, invites 
her to a park bench, and is thrown into the shrubbery by the 
irate husband for his pains. In his battered hat, he returns to 
his hotel so absentmindedly that he is nearly run over. 


Equally absentmindedly he enters the lady's bedroom, and 
once more he is thrown out. In the comfort of his own bed- 
room, fully dressed, he lies under the sheets thumbing his 
nose at the couple in the next room. He has not bargained 
with the lady who comes sleepwalking into his room, her 
arms outstretched like another Lady Macbeth. Charlie is puz- 
zled. He gazes down at her with mingled fear, desire and 
derision, and as he sits beside her, her hand gropes in his 
pockets for his billfold. Then the husband finds her, and 
Charlie is thrown out into the rain and the story ends with 
the inevitable "rally" with the cops in full pursuit. 

This is the bare bones of the story, conveying nothing of 
what Laurence Sterne once called "the vile errantry of the 
man," his ruined elegance, his gentle promptings and beckon- 
ings of the woman even when she is sleepwalking, his total 
insouciance before the spectacle of her thieving hands, for 
he merely assumes that this is what she would be doing, and 
calmly removes the billfold the moment she takes hold of it. 
There is a horror here which goes beyond the horror of Mac- 
beth, for the sleepwalker is both wide awake and walking 
at the same time, and the settings, more terrifying than any 
Scottish castle, are smeared with the desolate wallpaper, the 
infinite ugliness and disorder of a cheap lodging-house in Los 
Angeles. Chaplin knew his lodging houses. He lived by choice 
in an obscure rooming house at the western end of the Third 
Street Tunnel in Los Angeles, which was the nearest thing 
to the Kennington slums he ever found in America. The op- 
erative word in both these films was "caught." 

The Keystone films possessed a devilish sobriety. In them 
men acted like drunks when they were cold sober, and by 
force of acting like sober drunks they endowed themselves 
with complex reactions. It was the time of the great stone 
faces, the godlike immobility, the falling bricks, the exag- 
gerated wallops and the immense pratfalls. We talk of the 
early Keystone comedies as being soundless. They were not. 
You heard the agonising thwacks of the cops' truncheons, 


you heard the smack of a custard pie and the crack of a chair- 
leg on an unoffending head, the clutter of bricks falling and 
the rush of a hundred boots in pursuit. In all this hurricane 
of noise you were deafened into sharing the emotions of the 
protagonists on the screen. You could not think. You were 
caught up in that perpetual wave perpetually crashing 
against rock. It was a technique which Hitler employed with 
surprising effect. As for the emotions of the protagonists, 
they belonged to two easily defined classes: they were wildly 
negative or wildly positive. There was Mack Swain, who was 
a vast monument of exaggerated emotion, and there were 
brilliant actors like Chester Conklin who concealed all their 
emotions behind the protective coloring of a walrus mus- 
tache. They were deadpan. 

The term had originated with the gold-diggers in '49, but 
it was an oddly revealing word. Webster defines pan as the 
hollow part of a gunlock which receives the priming, and 
then goes on to say that it can also mean a hollow depression 
containing water or mud. The definitions were appropriate. 
The one thing it did not mean was dead Pan. 

The deadpan face was a wonderful invention, and Charlie 
seems often of a mind to employ it. Yet he rarely does, for 
the good reason that it would be excessively difficult for him 
to be a mask. He flirts with it. He will keep his lips still, but 
the ever-rolling eyes betray him, and so does his unruly hair 
and the expression of his chin. Even his ears speak. Buster 
Keaton with his crushed pork-pie hat could keep everything 
so still that even when he opened his mouth you were not 
aware that anything had moved. Before Chaplin, war was 
declared between the deadpan faces and the faces of the 
freaks: the war which Roscoe Arbuckle fought with Chester 
Conklin was continued by Hardy in his adventures with 
Laurel. The war between the freaks and the deadpans was 
not however entirely convincing. There were no explosions: 
only the imitated effects of explosions, the shock waves, the 
smoke (which was really flour) and the flames (which were 


strips of ribbon rising from an electric fan). We know the 
garrulous adventures of Laurel and Hardy, but we are only 
rarely aware of the incandescent spirit of comedy. The hooves 
of the god do not strike sparks from the earth. When the 
sparks fly, and only then, do we know we are in the presence 
of high comedy. 

It is worth while to linger a little with the deadpan face, 
for Charlie employs it at times in the early Keystone comedies 
and continues to employ it at intervals throughout his life. 
There is precision in that expression. It hints at subtleties 
which are beyond us. A man praying will often have that ex- 
pression, and so will a girl in love. It is a thing of abstrac- 
tions; and in its hardest and most brutal form you will see 
it on the faces of conquering generals conscious of the ad- 
miration of their audience, while teetering on the edge of 
the wildest self-applause. Marcellinus Ammianus tells of the 
young Emperor Constantius II entering Rome in his trium- 
phal chariot to the plaudits of the people, "his countenance 
remaining unchanged, while he gazed straight in front of 
him, looking neither to the left nor to the right, as though 
his neck were fixed; and like a statue he never moved his 
head or hands even when the wheels of his chariot shook 
him, nor was he observed to spit or rub his nose or wipe his 
mouth." It is a brilliant picture of the proud man, fit to be 
put beside St. Gregory's description of the man "who walks 
with himself along the broad spaces of his thought and si- 
lently utters his own praises." Aristotle, describing the meg- 
alopsychos, the man of great soul, speaks of his fastidious and 
unchanging expression. It is part of the aristocratic tradition 
that emotions should be buried under slip-covers, and when 
Lord Chesterfield reminded his son that a gentleman should 
never laugh, he was hinting that a gentleman should never 
weep as well; by definition a gentleman is deadpan. 

This, as we have seen, is precisely what Charlie is not. He 
is Pan alive, calling upon the earth and heavens to witness 
that he is alive and kicking. Half bird, half elephant, he lives 


in a universe which grows, as does Blake's, according to the 
acts of his imagination and in no other way. He is one of 
God's elect, but that disturbs him less than his knowledge 
of the evil of the world, and the folly of it, yet he goes out to 
encounter folly with the divine grace of a Don Quixote. "He 
is chasing folly, and he knows it," Chaplin said once. "He is 
trying to meet the world bravely, to put up a bluff, and he 
knows that too." So he does, but the game is played unfairly, 
for he hides up his sleeve an armament of cards which he can 
snap upon the table whenever the eternal poker game goes 
in his disfavor. Those who pretended to see him as the little 
man baffled by the world's authority forgot the hidden cards,, 
the knowledge that he will always win. 

None of this, of course, is made entirely clear by the Key- 
stone comedies. We have the advantage of hindsight. The 
figure of Charlie was to grow rounded; the sketch became a 
painting, and then a sculpture, and then something that 
walked. The picture at the beginning of the year was still 
fuzzy, and there was his almost insuperable tendency to rail, 
to grimace, to mock whatever his eyes alighted upon, an at- 
titude which may have arisen as a result of playing A Night 
at an English Music-Hail, where he was the pure spirit of 
mockery and nothing else. There was tenderness in the short 
scene at the edge of His Trysting Place, where he knelt in 
prayer beside an ashcan, and in Tillie's Punctured Romance, 
which appeared in November 1914, the tenderness returns 
in the brief interlude where he makes love to Marie Dressier 
while sitting on a high fence, balancing himself with the del- 
icacy of a drunken tightrope-walker, and those brief smiles 
of unalloyed happiness each time he regains his balance fore- 
tell the future of Charlie. 

Tillie's Punctured Romance, the first of the feature-length 
films in which Charlie appeared, followed a pattern which 
possessed classic proportions. It progresses furiously in one 
direction, beginning in the country where Charlie runs off 
with Marie Dressier, who plays the part of a farm-girl, the 


daughter of a rich farmer and the niece of a millionaire. With 
stolen money they run to the city, where they both acquire 
the latest fashions. From a bum Charlie becomes a toff, from 
a farm-girl Marie becomes a lady of fashion. Both have vio- 
lent tempers, and they are otherwise ill-matched, and when 
Charlie finds Mabel Normand waiting for him in the city, he 
is prepared to run away from the preposterously ugly Marie, 
but the city claims him, and when Charlie and Mabel inno- 
cently enter a restaurant, they find Marie working there as a 
waitress. They have taken her money. There is no escape. 
There will be a battle royal, or so it seems, but mercifully 
Marie faints away, and the two are able to escape. Thereupon 
we see some extraordinarily realistic shots of Marie's rich 
uncle, Charles Bennett, climbing in the mountains. The rope 
breaks. He falls into a snow crevasse, and we see him lying 
there, stretched out in death, and suddenly the film, which 
has been wandering on the edge of comedy, rarely amusing, 
suddenly grows sharp and clear. A very dead man is lying 
there, and the comedy has turned into stark tragedy. The 
trick has not been used often, but it is a surprisingly success- 
ful one, and when Chaplin employed it later in Carmen, 
where the death-scene is unbearably cruel on the audience, 
he was following a tradition established by the single linger- 
ing shot in Tillie's Punctured Romance where we see the 
millionaire stiff and ugly in death. 

The millionaire's death changes the fortunes of Marie. 
She inherits the estate and the precocious hilltop mansion 
filled with preposterous tapestries, knickknacks and over- 
grown vases. Charlie, reading in the newspaper that Marie 
has inherited the fortune and surmising that she is still un- 
aware of the news, slips away from Mabel and marries her. 
The marriage ceremony is performed before Marie has time 
to get her breath back. They celebrate by throwing a party 
in the hilltop mansion. Mabel comes as an uninvited guest. 
But the party, which provides an excuse for a sustained chase 
up and down the stairs and through all the gaudy over-dec- 


orated rooms, threatens to blow the film apart by a process 
akin to the inertia of a centrifugal force. The party, with 
Marie shooting wildly at Charlie because she has caught him 
kissing Mabel, is Mack Sennett at his dizzy best, but it is 
Marie who wins the laurels. 

Chaplin's scene comes earlier. He has arrived with Marie 
on his arm after the wedding. Marie is coy and simpering, 
and she leans gently on his arm, as gently as any woman can 
when she weighs twice as much as her husband. Two rows 
of butlers in full livery, with buckled shoes, knee-breeches 
and powdered wigs, stand stiffly at attention in the long gal- 
lery to greet them. Charlie gazes upon them as he would gaze 
upon a row of cigar-store Indians. He hangs his hat and cane 
on them, bawls them out, trips over their feet, flicks cigarette- 
ash into their faces and has the time of his life parading up 
and down in front of these stony sentinels of his newly ac- 
quired palace; we shall not see such a scene again until 
Chaplin revived it, with suitable alterations, in The Great 
Dictator. For the rest it is largely Marie Dressler's play. She 
blazes away with her pistol and her pie-crusts, tears up and 
down the stairs, dances a drunken tango, and when her uncle 
revives from his snow crevasse and turns her out of her house, 
she chases Charlie and Mabel all over the seafront and up 
and down Venice pier. In the end Charlie is left alone, while 
the two women commiserate with one another, complaining: 
"He ain't no good to neither of us." The statement is not 
strictly true. He was very good to both of them, but he was 
kindest to Marie, for he made love to her from a high fence 
and amused her with his play with flunkeys. These two scenes 
were memorable for other reasons: they showed the emer- 
gence of a sense of style, a talent for sustained invention. Pre- 
viously, Charlie had been able to invent anything he liked 
provided the invention did not last more than thirty seconds, 
and he had never possessed a single style; he is at least three 
different people in Laughing Gas, and his changes of mood 
in His Trysting Place were excessively bewildering. In Til- 


lie's Punctured Romance these moods are kept under control. 
The last film Chaplin composed for Keystone was His Pre- 
historic Past, where Mack Swain, appearing as Lord Low- 
brow, a giant in a bearskin attended by a host of concubines, 
succeeds at times in stealing Charlie's thunder. The most 
sustained of Mack Swain's performances occurred in The 
Gold Rush more than ten years later, where he was drowned 
in furs against an Alaskan winter. Now it is summer, and he 
wears only sufficient clothes to conceal his modesty. Charlie 
who has wandered into his prehistoric encampment finds 
him congenial, and lunges out at the concubines. He does it 
with expertise, with cunning, with as much flamboyance as 
a man can muster when he wears only a bowler hat and a 
thin strip of bearskin. It is the world of Pan and the Arca- 
dian forests, and now for a brief interval Charlie is all goat, 
trembling in the excitement of the chase and sometimes 
warning himself not to tremble with such evident relish for 
his quarry. He follows one of these Arcadian nymphs round 
a rock— all his slow cunning is manifest in that pursuit which 
ends, in the proper manner of a Keystone comedy, with Mack 
Swain and Charlie stealthily making their way round the rock 
and then meeting, or rather their posteriors meet. Charlie 
merely lifts his bowler. He is good at maintaining the civil- 
ities in the age of the dinosaurs. When Lord Lowbrow tells 
a joke, Charlie digs him in the ribs with a battle-ax. On the 
whole the battle-ax is rather too much in evidence; we do 
not want to be clubbed into laughing. Yet the style is there, 
without archness, and his huge thirst for life is at once car- 
icatured and underscored when he calmly walks over a carpet 
of Mack Swain's women. He walks on them with gentleness, 
as though he did it every day of his life, with the faintest of 
apologetic shrugs of the shoulders. And in the end, when he 
wakes up from the dream, the memory of Arcadia is so sharp 
that there are tears in his eyes. But it was not a dream. To 
Chaplin's astonishment, Charlie had become a thing of flesh 
and blood. 

Chapter Ten 

The Tragic Mask 

W hen Chaplin left Keystone at the end of 
the year and joined the Essanay Company in Chicago his 
technique was already worked out. The bones were there; 
he could now clothe them in flesh, add trimmings and dec- 
orations, give himself a wider canvas. Mack Sennett had al- 
ways insisted on an absence of studio props; he would use a 
real road and a real park, and care not a fig for the lighting. 
With the Essanay films we are made aware of props, of card- 
board rooms, of careful planning. The tempo slows down, 
the barroom fights are rare, and the devil of self-conscious- 
ness occasionally enters the picture. Instead of thirty -five 
pictures a year, Chaplin performed in fourteen pictures in 
nearly as many months. 

Attempts have been made to distinguish between the Key- 
stone, Essanay and Mutual periods, very much as art critics 
distinguish between the blue and pink periods of Picasso, 
but in fact there were no sudden changes of technique, no 
furious discoveries, no quiet emergence of pathos or tender- 
ness, for all these were there from the beginning. All that 
we can discern is an increase in depth, a sustained effort to 
broaden the extent of comedy and the devil of self-conscious- 
ness growing apace, until in Monsieur Verdoux self-con- 
sciousness drove the actor to the wall and the brilliance of 



the performance derived as much from desperation as from 
the natural ability of the born clown. 

Self-consciousness was a problem to be grappled with, and 
Chaplin attacked it in his own way. About this time in a 
discussion on the nature of comedy he said: 

Comedy is a thing which has developed up to a certain point, 
retrograded and come back to that point again. It has never 
progressed. We think it has developed all through the ages. We 
get this illusion of its development from its fluctuations, its 
characteristics as it has been preferred by the various generations 
and nationalities. The comedy that amuses the world today is 
identical with that which brought laughter to the Babylonians, 
the Greeks and the Romans. Every age in history is eaten up by 
the egotism of men. Every age thinks that the world has reached 
the highest point in the development in itself. That is because the 
man of this age sees himself at the center of the picture. 

I have a theory that comedy increases in refinement in inverse 
proportion to the refinement of the world in which it appears. 
I mean that the more intellectual the world is, the more bois- 
terous will be the successful comedy of that world. Look for ex- 
ample at the poor misshapen jester of the middle ages, that "end 
man in the world's minstrel show." There he is, clever and cal- 
culated, surrounded by the evidence of power and wealth, him- 
self powerless and poverty-stricken, the jester who played on 
words and mimicked the great people of the court, and poured 
scorn on those who were out of favor with the King. 

It was a good theory, but it left some ragged ends. There 
are no yardsticks by which comedy and refinement can be 
measured; there is no way of knowing for certain whether 
the Babylonians laughed at the same jokes we laugh at; and 
the implied theory that boisterous comedy will compensate 
for an over-intellectualised world, that there is always a kind 
of balance between comedy and refinement, is incapable of 
proof, and there is some reason for believing it to be untrue. 
During the reign of Tiberius Caesar the great mime of the 
time came on the stage, imitated Caesar, and suddenly 
spewed blood from his mouth. More actors came on the stage 
and spewed blood, with the result that the whole stage was 


swimming in blood. This was taken by Caesar as a deliberate 
pantomiming of his own death. Apparently it was hilariously 
funny. The jester was mocking the King, and we imagine 
that he skidded on the blood and fell flat on his face in it and 
swam in it, and the audience applauded. This joke, typical 
of the time, occurred during a period which might be re- 
garded as refined; certainly the extent and wealth of the 
Roman Empire were never greater. The joke could be de- 
scribed as boisterous, but it was not comic; nor is there any 
reason to believe that the clown as we know him today ex- 
isted in ancient Europe. His descent must be traced through 
the gods, by way of Pan and Hercules, and though the minor 
gods were freely acted on the stage, their purpose was to guy 
the other gods; the purpose of the clown is to guy the whole 
world of men, and at the same time to enrich them with the 
gifts he brings. Unlike the humorist or the comic, the clown 
bears the weight of the world's destiny and walks within the 
inner circle where great and terrifying decisions are made 
and things eternal weigh down his soul. Dante's second circle 
is his habitation; in its shady pathways he knows each stone 
of the road. As for the humorist and the comic they are all- 
too-human. They gag or tell funny stories. The tremendous 
things are not for them. They enchant us with tales from 
way back, tell stories in dialect, sing and dance, or they are 
smart at repartee. They have no godlike strength in them, 
nor have they the bitterness of the court jester, that "end 
man in the world's minstrel show" who scorns the poor 
though he is poverty-stricken, and scorns the King as well, 
though the King grants him favors. 

At his best Charlie is the pure clown; at his worst he is 
gagman, comedian, humorist, bore. In His New Job, the first 
film produced for Essanay, he is all these. Charlie is a stage- 
hand for the Lockstone Studio, which must be some kind of 
pun on Henry Lehrman's L-Ko, or Lehrman-Knockout Stu- 
dio. He is not a very efficient stagehand. He argues with his 
assistant, thrusts the mop into his face, trips over everything. 


The male lead in a film to be called "The King's Ransom" 
is late. Charlie is invited to take the part. Dressed up in a 
hussar's costume, the coat tails reaching to the ground, the 
embroidered coat five sizes too large for him, wearing an 
enormous shako, looking like a monkey in tails, Charlie 
abandons himself to a life of mayhem. While the cameraman 
turns the crank, the director orders him to escort the queen 
up the stairway. Charlie treads on her hem, and half her 
skirt falls away. Interrupted in a crap game behind a screen, 
he lunges out with his prop sword through the curtain. The 
film is played fast, and this prevents it from being a complete 
disaster. The Jitney Elopement which followed was hardly 
better, though it opens with a scene which was later to be- 
come classic— Charlie in the street twirling a daffodil as he 
serenades his beloved in a Spanish balcony. She drops a note, 
declaring her love and inviting him into the house. At the 
same time he learns he must impersonate Count Chloride 
de Lime, the suitor her father is expecting. Charlie imper- 
sonates the count and receives a royal welcome and is invited 
to dine, but someone has sprinkled pepper in the dinner and 
soon they are all coughing, and then the real Chloride de 
Lime arrives and the trouble starts. Eventually the count 
succeeds in enticing the girl into his car. Charlie gives chase, 
and they all come to an abrupt halt near a park, where 
Charlie manifests his talents for horseplay. By this time the 
story has become farce. Policemen pop unaccountably out 
of the bushes, give chase, disappear, return from the other 
side of the stage and pounce on Chloride de Lime to Charlie's 
enormous amusement. Only once does Charlie show his char- 
acteristic delicacy. This is when he feels a great need to light 
a cigarette. With the utmost care he extracts cigarette paper 
and tobacco, rolls the tobacco neatly into the paper, puts the 
finished cigarette to his lips and lights it, but what he lights 
is only the paper, for the tobacco has dribbled out. Charlie's 
insouciance as he accomplishes the feat of lighting a cigarette 
that isn't there is wonderful, but it has nothing to do with 


the story and could have been inserted at any place he 
pleased. The first five Essanays are shapeless and repetitious. 
With The Tramp Charlie comes into his own. 

Chaplin has recounted how The Tramp came about. Quite 
accidentally he met a hobo in San Francisco. The man was 
down and out, hungry and thirsty. Chaplin offered him food 
and drink, and asked which he would like to have first. 

"Why," the man said, "if I am hungry enough, I can eat 
grass. But what am I going to do for this thirst of mine? You 
know what water does to iron? Well, try to think what it 
will do for your insides?" 

Chaplin took him into the barroom for a drink and some 
food, and suddenly the man began to talk of his own irre- 
sponsible joy in living the life of a hobo. It was life lived to 
the uttermost. You saw the countryside, you travelled in ex- 
clusive freight-trains, you were greeted by the kindliness of 
farmers. Chaplin was delighted with the man, with his ges- 
tures, his expressions, his good talk. "He was rather surprised 
when we parted, because I thanked him so much," Chaplin 
said later. "But he had given me a good deal more than I 
had given him, though he didn't know it." 

The two-reel comedy was completed in three weeks. Out 
of the hobo's wanderings in the countryside, his life on the 
farm, and an imaginary girl who befriends him the comedy 
was constructed. Chaplin was determined upon perfection. 
In The Jitney Elopement the direction had gone to pieces; 
this time Chaplin was determined that all the actors should 
know their parts. Some of the minor situations were re- 
hearsed fifty times. They spent hours working on problems 
like the exact weight of a bag of meal falling on a man's 
head, and exactly how it should fall. A little thing like the 
twist of a foot on a ladder might be the work of a whole day. 
The result was a masterpiece. He simply told the story of the 
tramp hobbling in the countryside. He comes upon some 
thieves, bundles them up and reduces the fiery farmer to 
tears of gratitude. Wounded in the struggle with the thieves, 


Charlie is looked after by the farmer's daughter. He is all 
hope and gaiety. He never expected that anyone could be 
so kind to him. He cavorts about the farm, doing all the 
work, and he works with incomparable grace, even when he 
is pumping the cow by employing the tail as a handle. He 
makes outrageous love to the girl and pretends not to be 
aware that she has another suitor. Such things cannot be! He 
not only refuses to believe in the presence of the suitor, but 
he cavalierly dismisses the thoughts of all suitors from his 
mind. Destiny would never play such a cavalier trick. Finally, 
the existence of the suitor becomes only too evident, Charlie 
wraps up his little bundle, writes a sad note and goes quietly 
on his way. When we last see him he is walking sorrowfully 
down an empty road with the bundle on his shoulder, and 
the sorrow is unbearable until he suddenly takes it into his 
head to do a little dance, square his shoulders and go dancing 
to the horizon. 

This was the first of the films to possess a rounded story, 
the first to include the long road leading nowhere, the first 
to demonstrate the tenderness of Charlie to women. Pre- 
viously he had played with them, and if sometimes he had 
gazed at them with the consummate eagerness of a soulful 
puppy, this was as much as one could demand. Slapstick, too 
great an entanglement with props, a wit so keen that it tore 
the film apart, all these were dangers he had to contend with. 
None of the Keystone comedies was better than his first 
wonderful appearance during the Kid Auto races. There 
were hints towards another dimension— the love scene in 
Caught in a Cabaret, the nightmarish scenes in Caught in 
the Rain and The Face on the Bar-Room Floor, a hundred 
other minor miracles. In The Tramp Charlie began to per- 
form his greatest miracle: out of the water of comedy he 
would produce the wine of undiluted joy. 

So it was in The Tramp; so it was again in Work (which 
became more widely known as The Paperhanger), The Bank, 
Shanghaied, A Night at the Show, Carmen, and that strange 


incoherent piece called Triple Trouble, a title which indi- 
cated only too obviously that three separate comedies, each 
unfinished, had somehow been strung together into a single 
comedy, which made no sense at all, though it contains some 
passages of the most consummate artistry. 

Work is only incidentally about work; it has far more to 
do with the delirious joys of a paperhanger. The idea of the 
opening scene came to Chaplin when he saw a painter's as- 
sistant pushing a two-wheeled barrow loaded with material 
up a hill, while the weight of the barrow kept pulling him 
into the air and then letting him down again, so that he was 
carried in a half-circle over his barrow-wheel and the con- 
tents were all spilled out on the road. It was not funny for 
the painter's assistant; it was laughable for the onlookers; 
and it provided the needed curtain scene with which Chap- 
lin has nearly always begun his films, as though he felt an 
overriding desire to set a mood by some comic business which 
has little or nothing to do with the ensuing comedy. 

The opening of Work belongs to the lunatic heights of 
Charlie's imagination. Nothing could be simpler. There is 
Charlie, the patient work-horse, between the thin shafts of 
the paperhanger's cart, which is piled high with buckets, 
brooms and a particularly nauseating ladder. Seated among 
all these things, like an emperor on his throne, is the boss, 
who flicks a whip, shouts out orders, pays not the least atten- 
tion to Charlie's difficulties when the weight of the cart 
brings him flying into the air. A tramcar comes out of no- 
where and narrowly misses them. Charlie is upbraided by the 
boss, mops his face with a handkerchief and once more goes 
shooting into the air. When we see him again he is climbing 
a hill inclined at forty-five degrees. Uncomplaining as an 
ant, Charlie is forever sliding back, digging in, moving for- 
ward three paces to retreat ten paces. Some of these trick 
shots are taken in silhouette, and because the whole scene 
is then reduced to its simplest proportions, they are remark- 
ably effective: you can hear Charlie's grunting as he labors in 


his toil. He lives in the world of Samson, eyeless at Gaza, 
blind to everything except his own suffering, and we no 
longer laugh; we merely admire his grace as he leaps up and 
down between the shafts, forever incapable of subduing the 
mechanical monster of buckets and pails and wheels behind 
him. So he remains on the hill forever; and if, during the 
next shots we see him already at the top of the hill, while 
someone else, a friend of the boss's, crawls onto the cart, this 
is merely a trick performed by the cameras for our benefit: 
one cannot watch those cavortings between the shafts forever. 

At the gates of the house where the wallpaper is to be 
solemnly unwrapped and placed on the wall, Charlie's diffi- 
culties begin. Somehow he must escape from the shafts, dis- 
entangle himself from these monsters. The beast gives one 
further grunt, the whole edifice of buckets and ladders falls 
down— the ladder falls onto Charlie's shoulders and neatly 
imprisons him— and the boss leaves Charlie to struggle as 
best he can with the untamable monster. 

The house is a small replica of the hilltop mansion in 
Tillie's Punctured Romance. It has nothing to commend it 
except the grotesque frivolity of the taste of its owner. There 
are bear-rugs, bronze heroic statues of St George, the in- 
evitable cast of Pomona and Apollo on the upright piano. 
A nude performs the office of support for a lampshade. Weary 
beyond endurance, Charlie finds comfort in playing with 
the shade. He removes the shade, leers at the nude, quickly 
replaces the shade when he finds someone looking, and he is 
still wholly immersed in contemplating the shade when the 
paperhanger orders him to set to work. A servant enters, 
sweeps up all the valuables in the room and places them in 
a safe. Charlie gathers his own valuables, contemplates them 
avidly and decides to hang them with safety-pins on his trou- 
sers. In this way he can keep an eye on them. But the nude 
distracts him. A pretty servant-girl is sitting on the stairs. 
Seeing her, Charlie decides to wiggle the shade a little less 
voluptuously, and then, forgetting her or in the overwhelm- 


ing desire to attract her attention, he wiggles it lustily. Mean- 
while the decks are cleared, all the preparations for the 
paperhanging are over, and the boss merely sits down at the 
piano and diverts himself with the young wife, whose ap- 
pearance throughout the film provides an inexplicable com- 
mentary on the necessity of complicating a plot which will 
become far too complicated to be followed with any exacti- 
tude. The work of paperhanging at last begins. 

The boss, who bears an unhappy resemblance to Flaubert, 
becomes the prey of Charlie's wildest fancies. Charlie trips 
him up, catches him on the head with a board, and knocks 
him clean out with a bucket of paste when the servant-girl 
enters the room and Charlie's attention is distracted. Paste 
is everywhere. Charlie has one horrified glance at the girl 
and then throws water all over the boss in the hope of remov- 
ing the great smears of paste in which he is choking. The 
scene where Charlie frantically attempts at the same time 
to revive the boss and to drown him is accomplished with 
wonderful finesse, and the boss, sitting on the floor, only his 
eyes visible, looking for all the world like a more robust 
image of Charlie himself, shaking water and paste out of his 
ears and nose, is an image of the slapstick tradition at its 
best. Charlie's giggling ineptitude as he throws the buckets 
of water on his enemy, the way he slips in the puddles and 
leers at his own efforts, his complaisant and humble devotion 
to the task of cleaning up the mess while at the same time 
further increasing it belong to high comedy; and the mood, 
once established, is maintained through the three following 

We see Charlie at work alone. All the ambiguities which 
result from concerted effort are put away. Charlie will paper 
the wall by his own unaided efforts. No one shall interfere. 
He calmly surveys a roll of paper, unwinds it, jabs it with 
paste, sticks it on the wall. Part of the paper sticks to his 
hand. In an effort to disentangle himself he manages to wrap 
himself up in the wallpaper. The maid-servant enters at the 


moment when he is being nearly choked by the paper which 
fastens itself in soft coils all over him, a boa-constrictor in no 
mood for surrender. At this moment the scene ends, and 
when we see Charlie again he is sitting on the bed beside 
the maid-servant, dangling a paste-brush. The scene is joy- 
ously bawdy. The significance of the paintbrush is never 
obscured. Charlie sits there, his face a mask, gazing dumbly 
in front of him. Evidently he has been rebuffed. When he 
turns towards her again his mind is made up. He will make 
one last determined effort to win her. He jabs the air dis- 
consolately with the brush, and then, like wine poured into 
an empty skin, the face assumes a wonderful array of mean- 
ings. Words, desperate pleas, these are unnecessary; the face 
tells all. It was said of Garrick that he had only to put his 
head between two folding doors in front of an audience for 
a few minutes for everyone to be aware of high drama. In 
the course of those brief minutes Garrick's expression would 
change successively from wild delight to temperate pleasure, 
and then to tranquillity and surprise and blank astonish- 
ment and fear and horror. The drama was played before 
your eyes. There were no words, but the stage (the little gap 
between the door) was crowded. So it is in the scene where 
Charlie makes impassioned love to the maid, beginning with 
wistful pleadings, gentle admonitions, encouraging sighs, 
then drawing closer to her, imagining assent only to find 
that his imagination cannot tolerate her assent; he must 
plead his case with abandon; he must dare himself to per- 
form feats of love which will shake her soul. He moves closer 
to her. He very nearly jabs her with the paintbrush. He is 
all fire. He tells her, without any use of words, the most in- 
timate things about himself, about this flowering of his love 
for her, and at the moment when she seems about to surren- 
der, she stands up and strides out of the room. Charlie re- 
turns to his wall, to the venomous little scraps of wallpaper 
which refuse to adhere to anything except his brush, or to 


his clothes, and in his fury he tears the wallpaper into little 

The best is now over. Slapstick takes command the moment 
the wife's lover appears with flowers, mounts the over-dec- 
orated staircase and charges to greet the beloved. He is soon 
daubed with paste. In no time the whole house is an inferno 
of paste. Alone with his dripping brush Charlie faces the 
world, a lion at bay, and when everybody is milling around, 
when every permutation and combination of chance meet- 
ing has been completed, when everyone is smeared with 
paste, when the boss has fallen into the bath and the maid 
is hysterical, someone fires a gun and the stove explodes, and 
the last we see of Charlie is the impish face emerging, 
wreathed with smiles, out of the stove. He makes one terrify- 
ing leer of triumph, and then, when someone throws a lump 
of plaster at him, he disappears beneath the stove-grating like 
a god vanishing below the surface of the waves. 

Work belongs to the main canon of Chaplin's films. With 
the exception of the concluding passages of slapstick it ex- 
plores with subtle irrelevance the whole contour of Charlie. 
We see him at play, at work, in love and in the full panoply 
of his rage, his lust for action. Nothing in The Tramp ever 
quite approached this quiet mastery of the materials. When 
Charlie exercises the tail of a cow, thinking in some strange 
way that it serves the purpose of a pump and a teat, we are 
aware of a conscious manipulation of incident. Such things 
are invented. Nothing in Work is invented, except perhaps 
the last apotheosis of Charlie as he appears through the stove- 
grating against a ruined landscape, grinning devilishly, and 
there it is not the devilish grin nor the stove-grating which 
is invented— what he has invented is the particular relevance 
of the incident in a story about a paperhanger's assistant. It 
has nothing to do with the story. It could come at the end of 
any of these films, and in fact when Triple Trouble was put 
together out of existing odds and ends, the same explosions, 
the same rain of plaster, the same stove and the same Charlie 


were introduced to provide an ending to the film. It is the 
classic ending. In a sense it is the ending of all Charlie's films, 
and we shall see the same look of mingled triumph and aware- 
ness of disaster at the end of The Kid, City Lights and at 
least twenty other films, and if sometimes Charlie prefers not 
to show his face but turns his back in contempt upon the 
audience and the world, we are not misled; on his face, as 
the curtain falls, there must be the expression of an angel 
who has fallen from a cloud and is still dazed by his fall. 

Work, with its classic use of the paste-brush, was also the 
most bawdy of all Chaplin's comedies. In other films Charlie 
will hint at bawdiness, and the hint is enough. The most 
wonderful passages in the two-reeler are concerned with his 
desperate encounter with the maid on the bed, where the 
utmost tenderness is combined with the utmost bawdry. In- 
toxicating prospects open out. Deliberate and unalloyed 
obscenity has very little to commend it, but obscenity trans- 
formed into poetry is rare, desirable and only too difficult to 
achieve, though Shakespeare was an accomplished master. 
Schoolgirls reading Romeo and Juliet are usually unaware 
of the multitudinous obscenities with which the lovers ad- 
dress one another, but Elizabethan audiences were only too 
well aware of these poetic jests, this play with the generation 
of the world's fruit and flowers. And this is as it should be. 
Obscenity made poetry is a proper part of our lives. We do 
not love a woman the less because she assumes hilarious pos- 
tures in bed; we know that in her eyes we are assuming 
equally hilarious postures, and we hope we are equally lov- 
able. So it is in Work where the very name of the comedy is 
more appropriate to the delicate handling of the paste-brush 
than to the trials of a paperhanger caught between the shafts. 
With what elegance, what tortured frivolity, what cunning 
he wields his brush! We knew, and guessed long ago, that 
the red-hot pokers and inflated sausage-shaped balloons of 
the pantomime descended from the raw and scarlet phal- 
luses, three feet long, worn by the comedians on the Attic 


stage. We thought them indecorous. Perhaps they were; but 
in the hands of a genius with what gentle insistence can they 
be made to perform their dance. Perhaps, after all, the Athe- 
nians were not so indecorous as we thought. 

But if Work is important for its rejoicing in love, it was 
important for other reasons. That love scene is a thing to 
ponder, to see again and again. Here, for the first time there 
emerges the tragic mask in its full splendor. When the maid 
rejects Charlie and he turns away to contemplate a wall lit- 
tered with scraps of paper, all of different sizes, reaching 
from the door to the bed, all of them coiling away from the 
wall, we become aware that the wall resembles the noughts 
and crosses he inscribed madly on the floor in The Face on 
the Bar-Room Floor. The horror of emptiness and the empti- 
ness of horror are both revealed. Here Charlie is at his last 
gasp. He can suffer no more. Like the clown in He Who Gets 
Slapped, Charlie has received his "fifty- two slaps a day, all 
of them of crystal purity," and beyond these there is nothing: 
nothing to be suffered, nothing to be lost, nothing to gain. 
But as we are told so often by those who have never suffered, 
it is darkest before the dawn, the vision of God follows 
"the dark night of the soul," out of the depths come the 
soaring hopes. Sometimes they do. With Charlie, when grief 
has penetrated so deep, there is only one way of escape: he 
escapes into a tornado of action, splashing everybody with 
that miraculous brush which never has to be dipped into the 
paste-bucket, but is replenished the moment he has daubed 
the paste on someone's protesting face. 

The love scene and its final conclusions should be taken 
as a text for how a love scene is played by a consummate ac- 
tor. The hesitations of the lover, the way his mind works by 
aposiopesis, his incalculable hesitations and mental sleights 
of hand are admirably depicted. The thin line between the 
wildest joy and the most unutterable grief are explored. "I 
laugh till I cry," wrote Laurence Sterne in one of his letters, 
"and in some tender moments cry till I laugh." It is that 


world which is explored, with an enviable matter-of-factness 
and a certain disdain for easy solutions, but it is necessary to 
insist that they are tears of the wildest grief and the laughter 
of the wildest joy, and the whole scene is played without 
forcing a note. Anyone who has carefully observed a love 
scene in a modern film is usually made aware of the absence 
of the essential quality which the director intended to depict 
—love. In Work the quality of love is frighteningly apparent. 
Here it is necessary to make a distinction. We are accus- 
tomed to regard the early Chaplin comedies as dated. We 
speak of their abominable lighting, their lack of structure, 
the impossible situations in which Charlie finds himself. All 
this is true enough, though the defective lighting proves to 
be an advantage, the lack of structure is essential to the com- 
edy and the situations are impossible only in the sense that 
they are possible to no one except Charlie. He is talking 
about eternal truths, or rather he is being silent in a hundred 
languages about eternal truths. He speaks of love, and it is 
real love. He speaks of joy, and it is real joy. He speaks of 
grief, and it is the kind that can find consolation only in mir- 
acles. He is no comedian or tragedian: he sees the world as 
comedy and tragedy at once, instantaneously both. There is 
a moment in King Lear which may be considered the highest 
point ever reached by the English drama. It occurs when the 
raging King stumbles into the presence of Kent, Edgar and 
Albany while bearing Cordelia in his arms. "I know when 
one is dead, and when one lives," Lear declaims. "She's dead 
as earth. Lend me a looking-glass." He holds the mirror over 
her mouth, and there follows an intolerable pause weighty 
with mortality; then one by one, in three short lyrical phrases, 
Kent, Edgar and Albany startle us with poetry which possesses 
the purity of unexpected perfection: 

Is this the promis'd end? 
Or image of that horror? 
Fall, and cease! 


That is all; and it more than enough, more than we can bear, 
and when we ask ourselves what it means we realize that 
"promis'd end" can only refer to the Day of Judgment, and 
the last lines spoken by Albany can refer only to the "dissolu- 
tion of all the bonds that bind us." Now listen to poor mad 
Miss Flite as she contends with the unpaid rent and the 
avarice of lawyers in Dombey and Sons. She says: "I expect 
a judgment. Shortly. On the Day of Judgment." Isn't this 
the same horror, the same perception of horror, stated more 
obliquely, and with a kind of desolate wit, the wit of one 
who refuses to be intimidated, who refuses to bend? Or com- 
pare Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy with Sam Wel- 
ler's resolute attempt to prove "the great principle that 
crumpets wos wholesome": 

"How many crumpets, at a sittin', do you think 'ud kill me 
off at once?" said the patient. "I don't know," says the doctor. 
"Do you think half-a-crown's worth 'ud do it?" says the patient. 
"I think it might," says the doctor. "Three shillin's' worth 'ud 
be sure to do it I s'pose?" says the patient. "Certainly," says the 
doctor. "Wery good," says the patient, "goodnight." Next mornin' 
he gets up, has a fire lit, orders in three shillin's worth o' crum- 
pets, toasts 'em all, eats 'em all, and blows his brains out. 

This is, of course, unexplored territory, and there is no 
certainty that we will ever be able to explore it adequately, 
yet on this territory we live and breathe and have our being. 
On this territory the clowns throw sometimes a greater light 
than the tragic actors, and here the mad Miss Flite and the 
unknown patient with the fondness for crumpets march to- 
gether with Hamlet and the courtiers of King Lear. 

The great passages in the tragic comedy of Charlie belong 
to poetry, and should be regarded as poetry. 

There is poetry and to spare in The Bank, which followed 
shortly after Work. The love passages, the moments of dream 
and resignation and joy, are here diluted, perhaps because 
the marble bank itself, with its mad manager, its enormous 
vault, its continual comings and goings, tends to overshadow 


the clown. Here Chaplin was faced on another level with the 
same problem he contended with in The Great Dictator. 
You cannot parody a large city bank, for however much you 
exaggerate its inanity, it is still remarkably like a bank, with 
its pompous managers, its queues of eager worshippers, its 
cages which resemble prisons where the prisoners disburse 
life and death, and the vault which provides the sacramental 
mystery, taking the place of an altar, unhallowed but never- 
theless veiled. Charlie does the best he can. 

He enters the bank, having unwound himself from the re- 
volving door, with a sense of his own importance. He marches 
grandly to the vault and when he has reached it he examines 
his cuffs at intervals to remind himself of the complicated 
combinations. On the outside of the vault there is a wheel, 
like a ship's wheel, which he spins with brio. He is evidently 
the bank manager who has spent the weekend on his yacht. 
But as soon as the immense vault opens, he simply hangs up 
his coat and from somewhere in the dark recess of the vault 
he brings out a bucket, and inside the bucket is his coat and 
his office cap. The operation has evidently taken a long time, 
for when he entered the bank it was nearly empty and when 
he returns with his mop and pail it is crowded, so crowded 
indeed that he is able to slop everyone in sight, and the wet 
mop he holds over his shoulders swipes the bank manager 
and his client in the face, and goes on blissfully swiping peo- 
ple in the face, and there are puddles everywhere, and 
Charlie steps on the client's top-hat, and every conceivable 
permutation and combination arising from a wet mop's at- 
tacks on personal dignity are investigated, and even then he 
has not done with it, for the last drop must be squeezed out. 
This last drop falls when Charlie is thrown out of the main 
building and finds himself alone with another janitor, where- 
upon he calmly arranges that water from the mop should 
spill into the other janitor's tea. All this is excellent folly; 
it is not comedy. Charlie is merely displaying some of the 
things he can do with a mop. The mop is registered in our 


minds as something indissolubly connected with Charlie. In 
the end, when Charlie wakes up from his dream and drowsily 
kisses the mop, we shall have our reward, but not till then. 

The uses of mops are limited, and soon the mop is aban- 
doned for some delightful play with a wastepaper basket. As 
we have seen, Charlie is in his element with garbage cans; he 
is only a little less in his element with wastepaper baskets. 
Wastepaper provokes the devil in him. The other janitor, 
beautifully played by Billy Armstrong, has carefully swept 
vast quantities of loose paper away just outside the office 
which Charlie has been ordered to sweep up. Charlie has no 
real desire to sweep the office up. He toys with the little 
pieces that lie about, gently entices them into the basket, sur- 
veys them with anguish and seems to be waiting for them to 
jump in the basket of their own accord. This they refuse to 
do, and finally Charlie sweeps them all out into the hallway. 
Billy Armstrong, pushing one white wave of paper away, is 
confronted with the spectacle of another wave following on 
his heels. Finally all the paper is swept back into the original 
office, and when the bank manager complains, Charlie simply 
turns on the electric fan. Then the paper is everywhere, and 
all we see of Charlie is a grinning face in a wild rain of paper. 

So far Charlie is seen to be playing with the utmost ele- 
gance as a funny man. We are even amused when the two 
janitors' pails get stuck together and Charlie offers to fight 
Billy. This he does in characteristic fashion, for he removes 
his coat, hands it to Billy who quietly accepts the privilege 
of holding it, and is surprised when Charlie knocks him on 
the jaw. But all this is preliminary fencing. The real drama 
is concerned with the cashier's tie. In the stenographer's little 
cubbyhole of an office Charlie comes upon a birthday parcel, 
and a little note reading: To Charles with love from Edna. 
Charlie has always loved Edna from a distance. He gazes at 
the parcel with an expression of rapturous delight. He is so 
delighted that he starts to spin the handle of the hand-press 
and he only stops spinning when one of his hands becomes 


dreadfully mangled. He blows a tragic kiss towards her type- 
writer, assumes the postures of a lover, inflates his chest with 
a quiet pride, and then steals out of her office to gather (God 
knows where from) some roses for her. He places them on her 
typewriter and kisses the keys, and adds a note: To Edna 
with love from Charles. Deliriously happy, he is next seen 
in the company of a preoccupied bond salesman. Charlie feels 
his pulse, orders him to stick out his tongue and then pro- 
ceeds to moisten a stamp for a letter. The letter is too large 
to be put into the mailbox, and so Charlie simply tears the 
letter up into little pieces. Satisfied with himself, he goes to 
see what Edna is doing. She is giving the birthday present 
to one of the cashiers, a thin balding young man who pos- 
sesses no presence, no gift for comedy. Edna tells him about 
the roses she found on her typewriter. The cashier denies 
that he gave them to her. Then who is the donor? There can 
be only one explanation, and when Edna returns to her office 
she calmly throws the flowers and the little note into the 
wastepaper basket— that infallible wastepaper basket which 
receives all human joys and sorrows. When Edna leaves the 
room, Charlie tiptoes in, removes the flowers, buries them 
under his coat and then pauses. Once more we see the mask 
of tragedy, such a mask as an Athenian sculptor might have 
conceived, a thing that snaps the heartstrings, dreadful to 
contemplate. This is not a man suffering, nor an actor mim- 
icking; this is Pan at the moment of the terrible delirium, 
the moment before he shrieks, in his rage of love and grief. 
Wandering away Charlie sees the cashier prinking himself 
with his new tie. He looks on with contempt, smiling his odd 
bewildered smile, then he runs off to the corner where the 
other janitor is similarly prinking himself. Charlie gazes at 
the flowers, as one might gaze at one's own bleeding heart. 
It occurs to him that they might find their home in the ash- 

The bank has now closed, and Charlie rests wearily on a 
bench. The bank president is still at work. The time has 


come for the cashier and Edna to take the day's takings to 
the safe. Under the marble stairs the thugs are waiting. The 
cashier and Edna smile at one another in the blissful awaken- 
ing of their only too tawdry love. Charlie looks on. There is 
nothing he can do, nothing he cares to do, and then the thugs 
emerge from their hiding place, throw themselves on Edna, 
gag her, force her into the safe which they make her open, 
while the cashier takes to his heels. Soon the thugs have the 
whole bank at their mercy. They have not counted on 
Charlie. Alone he confronts them. He releases Edna, wallops 
one of the thugs with a sack of gold, goes like a whirlwind 
through the marble halls of the bank, kicking, shoving, blun- 
dering his way to victory. The bank president is menaced by 
the thugs. Charlie storms into the bank president's office. He 
is Walter Mitty, all hero, seven times larger than life. No 
head is raised, but he must smack it down. The police come, 
and from his hiding place under the president's desk the 
cowardly cashier emerges like a tamed octopus, all legs and 
saucer eyes, and Charlie mocks at him— "Those things I have 
done, thou couldst have done." It is the time for the de- 
nouement. Charlie removes the flowers from inside his coat, 
those flowers which had been his token of victory, and now 
he gazes at them, lets them drop gently on the floor, unable 
to see them any more, his eyes brimming with tears. Edna 
picks them up and puts her head against his shoulder. It is 
a moment of the utmost poignancy, Charlie and Edna coming 
together at last, and it hardly matters that the cashier is being 
removed by the police: this is not the victory desired by the 
lovers. Then very slowly Charlie turns to kiss the beloved. 
At that moment he wakes up, and finds himself kissing the 
mop, and there in front of him are Edna and Charles coyly 
kissing one another. Charlie rises, kicks the flowers away with 
the back of his sausage-shaped boots, and goes— nowhere. 

Such is the outline of the story, and even from the outline 
it should be clear that the whole gamut of comedy from farce 
to the highest reaches of the comic spirit are explored. The 


film has become the vehicle of all Chaplin's astonishing gifts. 
When he is not on the screen, the film dies. The poet Non- 
nus, who wrote at the time of Theodosius, speaks of "the ges- 
tures that are language, the hands that are mouths, the fingers 
that are voices." So it is in The Bank. The dexterity by which 
Charlie conveys words that are in no known vocabulary and 
cannot be spoken, the way he speaks with the inclination of 
his little finger, his amazing sense of the charity of the space 
in which he wanders, how all things aid and abet him, his 
luminous face, perpetually alive while everything around him 
is touched with decay, these are beyond criticism. There is 
a scene in The Tramp where the hobo gazes through the 
window of a cheap restaurant at a fat man being served a 
huge steak. The hobo has forgotten the taste of a steak, but 
watching the fat man he subtly imitates the movements of 
the man. He does not do this broadly. He does not lift up 
imaginary forks and knives to his mouth. He makes the mi- 
nute gestures, and all the time he yearns towards the steak, 
and there comes from the corner of his mouth a little stream 
of saliva. This is not great art, though Charlie performs ad- 
mirably. But imagine that the steak gives way to something 
infinitely more valuable— the secret of the universe, whatever 
is most desirable, a girl, or simply an understanding of life. 
Imagine that he desires this with all the powers of his soul, 
and knows that the desire will never be fulfilled, and yet 
finds himself compelled to yearn for these things against all 
the obstacles that the world sets before him. Then imagine 
that by continually adoring these things which are beyond 
one's reach, as a nun perpetually adores the body of Christ, 
a vision is given to him, no more than a blinding flash, the 
lightning-lit landscape of heaven lying before him: such is 
the expression on his face. We shall see it many times, but it 
is never quite the same. Charlie has known heaven, and 
therefore his fall is greater. When he is rejected by Edna, 
when he stands outside her door shuddering with the vio- 
lence of rejection, when he recognises the mop as a mop, 


when he sees the world as it is in all its insane complications, 
a world where there is no joy and little comfort, he has come 
to the end and can go no further— and at this moment the 
miracle occurs, for he does go further— there is always the 
little goat-like skip, which is as much a sign of his authority 
as the flowers which he wears against his heart, buttoned up 
under the janitor's uniform. 

The Bank was followed by Shanghaied and A Night at the 
Show. Shanghaied is farce, and A Night at the Show is a care- 
ful recapitulation of the act which brought him into prom- 
inence when he was a member of Fred Karno's troupe. There 
is very little to be said about Shanghaied except that it main- 
tains a precarious balance on a lunatic tightrope. Charlie is 
offered three dollars if he will help the ship's captain get 
three men on board. He is given a mallet, squats in a tub 
and hits the three men over the head, and for good measure 
he hits the captain. Finally, Charlie is also hit over the head, 
and finds himself appointed assistant to the cook, with the 
onerous task of seeing that everyone is fed. The best scenes 
occur when Charlie succeeds magnificently in keeping his 
balance while the ship teeters from side to side. He carries 
his trays with superb aplomb, slides backwards and forwards 
across the deck, fools with pieces of soap which are mistaken 
for pastry, and dances a hornpipe with a mop. He places the 
plates on the table, but they slide across the whole length of 
the ship and he neatly catches them when they return. It is, 
of course, the trapeze-like world he has known from the be- 
ginning, and he shows not the least signs of astonishment 
until he discovers that there is dynamite on board— the cap- 
tain intends to blow up the ship for the insurance money by 
means of a time fuse. He also discovers that the shipowner's 
daughter is a stowaway. There is some mild lunacy in the 
hold where Charlie, covered in flour, pretends to be a ghost 
and frightens everyone, and Edna is equally frightening in 
her ghostly sackcloth. The captain, who has no idea that Edna 
is on board, sets light to the fuse, and the shipowner, who has 


only just learnt that his daughter is on the ship, arrives in a 
fast motorboat at the moment that Charlie throws the dyna- 
mite overboard. There is one magnificently ironic moment 
at the end when he finds himself with the shipowner on the 
motorboat and declares that he has nothing left to live for, 
he will commit suicide; and so he promptly jumps off the 
boat, being careful however to pinch his nose, and he shoots 
up on the other side of the boat and kicks the shipowner off. 
But this is small beer. Charlie plays the roles given to him 
with charm and spirit, but he is not playing the parts with 
an air of desperation or with any intention of employing his 
gifts to the uttermost. In A Night at the Show he employs a 
good half of his gifts— the more savage half. 

The curtain-raiser describes the arrival of the fat lady at 
the box-office and the emergence of Charlie from behind a 
heroic plaster nude in the courtyard of the vaudeville show. 
Charlie is dressed like a toff, with an insolent sneer on his 
face and an air of jaded indifference to the world around 
him. There is no swagger in him. He is eaten up with con- 
tempt for the human race; he will, if he can, make everyone 
suffer. In all this he is the complete opposite of Rowdy, a gut- 
tersnipe in the gallery who wears baggy trousers and a walrus 
mustache. Both parts are played by Chaplin. The honors go 
to Mr. Rowdy, who has only to appear on the screen, delir- 
iously impatient with the performers on the stage, to evoke 
a sense of warm humanheartedness. But Mr. Pest, in the or- 
chestra stalls, is the cold precision machine of destruction. 
Unfortunately we see comparatively little of Rowdy, and far 
too much of Pest. 

Pest, sitting in the second row, turns to look at the lady 
sitting by his side. She is offensively ugly, he smiles weakly 
and begins to clap his hands. This infuriates her and every- 
one else, whereupon Charlie rises, bows to the audience and 
takes a seat in the front row, where a short-sighted conductor 
mistakes his head for a music-rest and taps it impatiently at 
the rise of the curtain. There is a great deal of unhappiness 


between Charlie and the orchestra, but his real hate is di- 
rected towards the audience. He wanders about trying to 
find a place where he can be most offensive. Eventually, he 
is gently removed by the bouncer. He wanders into the court- 
yard, takes one look at the fat lady, and promptly dunks her 
in the fountain. When he slips into the theatre again Edna 
Purviance, wearing pearls and looking like a Renaissance 
princess, smiles politely at him. He imagines she is overcome 
by his charm. Her husband is sitting beside her, and at the 
precise moment when Charlie's hand steals out to touch hers, 
her husband's hand does the same. There is a meeting of 
hands— Charlie's and the husband's. Meanwhile the rowdy 
in the gallery has been observing what is happening below, 
and he opens a bottle of beer and allows it to spill down on 
the pest. The pest retires in confusion. 

When we see him again he is sitting behind a woman with 
an enormous hat decorated with towering ostrich feathers. 
Charlie removes them one by one. A fat woman is singing 
on the stage. Charlie is infuriated by her, runs up on the 
stage and picks a'quarrel with the stage manager. When the 
fat lady curtsies, Charlie assumes that the applause is for 
him, and bows to the audience. Shortly afterwards we find 
him sitting with a fat boy, who is eating tarts. Tootsy Frutti, 
the celebrated snake-charmer, dances across the stage, pipes 
on her trumpet and awakens the king cobras from their sleep. 
Charlie is snoring. He has had enough of the vaudeville. He 
never wants to see a vaudeville show again. The snakes crawl 
into the trumpet, trombones and bassoon, the orchestra takes 
to flight and when Charlie awakes, the king cobra is hand- 
somely coiling all round him. His expression of polite as- 
tonishment is wonderfully convincing. The snake-charmer 
is followed by Dot and Dash, a fat man and a bearded dwarf 
who sing sentimental songs in an endless duet. The rowdy 
in the gallery takes one look at them, jumps out of his chair, 
runs down to the edge of the gallery and is so impatient of 
the sentimental ballad-singers that he has one foot over the 


balcony before he has thrown his tomato. Later he will throw 
ice-cream cones. Dot and Dash continue singing. They are 
used to this kind of thing. The whole gallery is busy throwing 
things at them, but they continue undaunted, troupers that 
they are. The fat boy begins to throw tarts. The pest throws 
tarts. Everyone is throwing something. The stage manager 
is bowled over by a barrage of tarts, and Dot and Dash are 
still singing, blinded by ice-creams. 

Finally, there is Professor Nix, the fire-eater. The stage 
darkens. The mysterious spells are woven, the fires are lit and 
Professor Nix swallows hard. The stage looks like hell's 
flames, and the pest hides behind the fat boy. The rowdy up- 
stairs is not in the least put out by the darkened stage and 
the mysterious mumbo-jumbo of fire-eating. He simply runs 
back to the top of the gallery, unhooks the hose and turns 
the water on the stage, and anyone in the gallery who dares 
to interfere with him receives a blast of water in the face. 
Soon the stage is drowned, and half the audience are wet 
through. In the final passage of the film the rowdy takes an 
intense dislike to the pest and directs the hose on him alone. 

One cannot unreservedly admire A Night at the Show. 
The tempo is furious, the comic cliches run fast upon one 
another, the uproar is calculated to a mounting vertigo, but 
except for the occasional appearances of the rowdy in the gal- 
lery, mischievous as the devil, there is no warmth, and the 
pest's icy contempt for the world is only too evident. One 
knows exactly what he would do if someone came upon the 
stage and sang well. He would poke out his tongue, squirm, 
cough, and utter catcalls. Only the rowdy, forever in his 
eagerness throwing himself down the gallery steps and getting 
one leg hooked over the gallery rail, would applaud. 

That too-fast tempo, that tempestuous cold chill also oc- 
curs in many of the opening passages of Carmen, those cavort- 
ings which seem endless only because they had passed out of 
Chaplin's hands before he could edit the film. He was delib- 
erately wasteful with film, turning 100,000 feet to achieve 


2,000, and the repetitions of Carmen are dreadfully weari- 
some, for it was stretched out by the Essanay editors to make 
a four-reeler, when Chaplin had intended only to make a two- 
reeler. Yet the duelling scenes are superb, and in the realm 
of wit they belong to the greatest things he has done. The duel 
begins fiercely. The antagonists are at one another's throats. 
They have a world to gain. They will hack their way to vic- 
tory. And then quite suddenly both tire of the game, and 
they fight in order to demonstrate the infinite swashbuckling 
possibilities of the dance. So they dance and wield their 
curved swords like feathers or like billiard cues and gently 
cut one another down and as gently rise, and all the time 
their expressions are ferocious. In the end, of course, Darn 
Hosiery must kill his Carmen when she refuses him. With 
the same suddenness with which the duel turned into com- 
edy, the comedy now turns into tragedy. Charlie, in his fire- 
man's helmet and monumental epaulettes, throws the props 
out of the window. Mocked by Carmen, he will stab her, and 
make her tragedy as real before our eyes as the death of Des- 
demona. His face drained of blood, while gazing at her with 
the utmost tenderness, he stabs her, and then gently lowers 
her to the ground, and she turns her head a little, as though 
she wanted to say something to him, but there is no time, 
all the life is flowing out of her, and then he kisses her and 
gazes at her once more for the last time, for he slowly stabs 
himself, and falls dead over her. All this is done to the leap- 
ing music of tragedy. The toreador enters, and he too has the 
look of tragedy on him. Slowly Charlie's backside comes lift- 
ing up from the floor, and a beautifully aimed foot throws 
the toreador out of the scene. The lovers jump up, smile, 
embrace one another and Charlie removes the fake dagger 
from her back with a backward glance of supreme mockery 
and triumph. What is wonderful is the way the woodenness 
of death, its stark rigidity, is so suddenly become a laughing 
thing. "There is no death," he is saying. "See, all swords 
have hollow handles, and the blade instead of piercing 


flesh—" The last brief scene has the quality of one of those 
Elizabethan lyrics where death is visualised as a gay dance 
of black plumage. 

Carmen was the last of the films Chaplin produced for 
Essanay with the exception of Police, which employs too 
many of the old tricks and is too repetitive to be accounted 
among the major films. There once again, as in The Bank, 
he makes play with the complicated opening of things: he 
regards an oven with the same circumspection as he regarded 
the bank-vault, and cunningly ensures himself that he has 
the correct combination. Police is the product of weariness. 
Triple Trouble is the product of no one's fancy. Its chief 
virtue is that it contains a long passage from the uncom- 
pleted Life, which Chaplin never completed. Life was to be 
the real story of Charlie. The greater part of it would take 
place in a doss-house among thugs and ruffians. It would be 
the story of the ashcan world, where no one danced in tin- 
kling epaulettes and no one wore immense plumed helmets. 
In its odd and terrible way Life would be funny; it would 
not be amusing. All that remains of Life is a single sustained 
passage inserted half-way through Triple Trouble, where 
Charlie appears in the doss-house late at night when all the 
other inmates are asleep, or trying to sleep, for a madman 
is there, bawling away. Charlie goes to bed, but the bawling 
goes on. The man is old and toothless, with a cavernous black 
wobbling mouth. He raves on the edge of his bed. Charlie 
can stand it no longer, gets a bottle, knocks the man on the 
head, tenderly kisses him goodnight and puts him to bed. 
Then the thief comes in. He is the wildest looking thief who 
ever appeared in any of Chaplin's comedies. He steals a purse. 
Charlie, wide awake and frightened, wonders how to pre- 
serve his few remaining coins. He takes off his coat, slips it 
under the shoddy mattress and for greater security puts his 
money in his mouth. Quietly he goes to sleep. Awakened by 
a noise, he wonders what has happened to the coins, pats 
himself all over— no sign of them. The thief is counting his 


money. Charlie decides to frighten him out of his wits, but 
how do you frighten a bold thief? Charlie burrows under the 
coverlet, takes off his shoes, puts his hands in them, and hav- 
ing reversed himself completely on the bed, one finger peer- 
ing out through a hole in his shoe, he resembles some strange 
sea-monster. The thief looks up to find two broken shoes and 

one finger facing him 

It was out of such simple things that Chaplin made his 
comedies in those early years. The brightness of eternal suns 
shone on him, he seemed to move in a world where every 
mortal thing became his toy, and this is as it had to be. He 
was to say afterwards that he was lonely and miserable during 
those years, uncertain of everything except the mastery of his 
craft. It was only very slowly that he came to realise fully that 
the vast popularity he enjoyed was due to a strange marriage 
between his own misery and the misery of the world about 
him. They knew why they laughed. Chaplin knew, but he 
could not put it successfully in words. By the spring of 1916 
he knew that Charlie had come to stay, and he would have 
to spend the rest of his life with the clown. 

Chapter Eleven 

The Hero 

VV ith the coming of the war Charlie's pop- 
ularity could only increase. By some means which we shall 
never fully understand, he answered a deep human need. 
There was compassion in him, and a generous understanding 
of human foibles, and the wit which people cry out for in a 
mechanised age. Outside the little cinema houses with their 
collodion smells and tinkling pianos the papier-mache tramp, 
the size of a cigar-store Indian, waving his jaunty cane with 
his hat a little on one side, was like an invitation to license. 
Someone— perhaps it was Chaplin— remembered the cry of 
Grimaldi in the ancient pantomimes, and the words: "Here 
we are again!" or "Here's that man again," accompanied the 
portrait of the bewildered little tramp. He was never again 
to reach the popularity he received during the war, for he 
became the emblem of all men's hopes and all their bewil- 
dered fears for the future. 

By 1915 the children were singing: "The moon shines 
bright on Charlie Chaplin." This strange little song with its 
obscure origins went through many versions. There was one 
version sung by the children and another sung by the sol- 
diers in the trenches. The soldiers' version began: 

The moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin 
Whose boots are crackin' 


For the want of blacking 
And his little baggy trousers 
They want mendin' 
Before we send 'im 
To the Dardanelles 

In polite circles it was agreed that the song was a parody of 
a sentimental ballad on an Indian maid called "Redwing," 
sung to the melody of Schumann's "Merry Peasant." It is 
much more likely that the origin of the song was devoutly 
obscene, and went back to the eighteenth century street-song 
which T. S. Eliot has echoed in The Waste Land. This an- 
cient and ribald song, which was also sung in the trenches, 
contained some surprising verses: 

The moon shines bright on Mrs. Porter 

And on her daughter: 
She washes out her in soda water, 

And so she oughta, 

To keep it clean. 

But there were a hundred other songs about Chaplin, who 
had captured the public imagination as it has rarely been 
captured before; and long before Shoulder Arms street-arabs, 
playing hopscotch, would sing: 

One, two, three, four, 

Charlie Chaplin went to war. 

He taught the nurses how to dance, 

And this is what he taught them: 

Heel, toe, over we go, 

Heel, toe, over we go; 

Salute to the king, 

And bow to the queen, 

And turn your back 

On the Kaiserine. 

It was the time when Charlie was in his glory, before the 


world grew embittered with failure and war. People cried 
out for a hero, and now they had one, and there had never 
been a hero less demanding. There was nothing swashbuck- 
ling about him. He asked for nothing, only to be let alone, 
but if he was not let alone, he was pure defiance, the most 
savage of opponents. Consciously or unconsciously Chaplin 
had caught the mood of the Allies, a mood compounded of 
tenderness, defiance, a desperate desire to be finished with 
the war, and contempt for a swarthy spike-helmeted enemy. 
The Mutual and Essanay films could be, and were, read as 
veiled allegories. Those huge bearded or heavily-mustached 
"heavies" were Germans, and Charlie ran rings round them. 
Even the Keystone Cops— for the Keystone films were revived 
again and again during the course of the war— those elephan- 
tine monsters with tattered epaulettes, oversize police badges 
and coats which resembled blankets too often slept in could 
be identified with the enemy, and Charlie had them at his 
mercy. In our day there has been no successful mockery of 
the enemy. The Soviets once produced a picture showing 
Hitler as a tormented lunatic, and in the end by means of 
adventures derived straight from Shoulder Arms, they showed 
him neatly bound up in a wicker cage which patrolled 
through the length and breadth of Russia. But what if some 
film director gifted with foresight had depicted during the 
war the vast and terrible comedy of Hitler's last days— the 
cheap bourgeois wedding to a mistress discarded long before, 
the sighs and the solemn parades and the last handshakes in 
the underground cellar, then the quiet murder on the love- 
seat. We shall see later that Monsieur Verdoux was a far 
keener portrait of the dictator than anything provided in the 
life of Adenoid Hynkel. 

The mood of the First World War demanded comedy re- 
duced to its essentials, and there is some significance in the 
fact that between May 1916 and October 1917 Chaplin pro- 
duced his finest comedy two-reelers. Of the twelve films pro- 
duced for Mutual five were masterpieces. Four of them 


derived by direct descent from The Bank, while the fifth, 
One A.M., an example of the sheerest virtuosity, derived 
from nothing so much as all men's quarrel with the world. 

Chaplin's stay with Mutual began with two false steps. 
The Floorwalker and The Fireman were excellent comedies. 
They said what needed to be said, but without brio, without 
depth and without that wild knowledge of the ways of the 
world which was Charlie's proper contribution to human 
happiness. As a floorwalker and as a fireman, Charlie was in 
receipt of a regular income. It is possible that the trouble 
lies there, for Charlie in receipt of a regular income or any 
income at all is a strange anomaly. We do not expect him to 
have a job. If he pretends to be a barber occasionally, no one 
will question him, for it is clear that barbering is not his vo- 
cation. He is at his best as a janitor or a poverty-stricken 
immigrant or as an underpaid drudge in a pawnshop serving 
his master for a few days until the inevitable dismissal, and 
he is best of all as a tramp or a vagabond: then he comes out 
of nowhere, trailing clouds of glory, beholden to no one, and 
wholly credible. 

The Floorwalker is not Charlie, who merely walks the 
floor. The real floorwalker is a thief who vaguely resembles 
Charlie, and who tries to run away with the store's money. 
Some of the running takes place on the elevator. There are 
wonderful moments when Charlie and the floorwalker face 
one another, thinking they are watching themselves in mir- 
rors—it is a foretaste of the scene in The Circus where Charlie 
is lost in the mirror maze and doffs his hat to the strange 
creature who keeps smiling at him out of glass. There is an 
exquisite moment when Charlie picks up a wax leg, dazzled 
by its perfections. But there is no film. Instead, there are 
some wonderful little strips of film, and some very boring 
pieces, and there is no bite in the camera-work, nor any sense 
of illusion. Everything is ambiguous in the film. We know 
from the beginning that there will be nothing but confusion, 
but there is no purpose in the confusion, no hint of any real 


drama, and he offers us no reason why we should care two 
hoots what happens to him. 

In The Fireman we have even less reason to care. Charlie 
in a fireman's uniform is no more convincing than when he 
wore the uniform of a hussar in His New Job. He is out of 
character, simply by being a fireman. He is wonderful, of 
course, at putting out fires, climbing up the sheer walls of a 
house to rescue a maiden on the third floor of a burning 
house, and he is prodigiously competent with the hoses, but 
he is a ridiculously young man to be Charlie (he now resem- 
bles a boy of eighteen) and we care for him no more than we 
care for those presentable clever young men who hang around 
poolrooms. He is smart. He is very nearly funny. And he 
has no soul. And though for the first time since The Bank 
the photography is brilliantly clear and sharp, this in itself 
is a defect; on those early films a good lens was a disadvantage 
and coarse grained film sliced with running silver streaks 
only added to the illusion. 

In The Vagabond, the third of the Mutual films, Charlie 
comes into his own. The story begins with a preliminary 
flourish which has nothing to do with the main plot— a scene 
in a barroom with Charlie playing on his fiddle, and no one 
paying the slightest attention. A German band is playing. 
Charlie shrugs his shoulders, removes his hat and passes it 
round. Then the furor Germanicus is awakened, and Charlie 
has to run for his life. When we next see him he is a thou- 
sand miles away, deep in the country, climbing over a fence, 
with a nail sticking to his trousers. He carefully removes the 
nail, makes a profoundly horrified face at the imbecility of 
nails, and then he sees Edna Purviance washing clothes be- 
side a gypsy caravan, a wicked old crone belaboring her. The 
girl is frightened. Charlie believes it is his task to please her 
with his fiddle. He plays soulfully, smiles tenderly, assures 
her that the world is still beautiful, still worth living in, and 
after he has played "The Honeysuckle and the Bee," he bows 
politely, applauds himself, bows again, roars with happiness 


over his own proficiency in fiddling, and then tumbles into 
the washtub. The old crone returns, and Charlie, horrified 
by the ugliness and brutality on her face, is about to run, 
but the girl pulls him back. When the threat has passed, 
Charlie plays for her again, puts one foot on her lap, smiles 
confidingly, embraces her, is all smiles and sweetness, till the 
leader of the gypsy band comes running with his whip, and 
Charlie in sheer fright falls into the tub again. All this is the 
purest poetry, the most delicate flattery of the mind. The tub, 
of course, takes the place of the trapdoor in the pantomime; 
and as he falls in and out, shaking himself like a dog, smiling 
with the most gentle effrontery at the girl, we are aware of 
a warmth and intimacy in their lovemaking, of secrets sud- 
denly revealed: it is as though we were watching real lovers 
in a fairy-tale. But there must be an end to love, the gypsy 
caravan departs, Charlie is left alone, and without warning 
we are shown a grey-haired woman with chocolate-box sweet- 
ness gazing at the photograph of her long-lost child. 

The long-lost child, like the likeness between twins, is the 
stuff of comedy, and Charlie has used them to the hilt. He is 
himself the long-lost child, and it is only by the most cun- 
ning use of sleight-of-hand that he convinces us that the girl 
is lost. The grey-haired woman, of course, is pure intrusion. 
If she adds nothing, she takes little away, though we regret 
the moments when Charlie is off the screen. That the gypsy 
girl is her lost daughter may be true. We are even prepared 
to believe it but we wish devoutly that it was not true. Sig- 
nificantly, the camera-work of all the scenes in which the 
mother appears has a faded dusty look, like the bloom on a 

The caravan has departed, but when we see it again, 
Charlie has caught up with it. The bully is still striking the 
girl with the whip. Charlie climbs a tree and lies like a snake 
on the limb. When the gypsies come out of the caravan, he 
knocks them out with a club, and when they are all sprawl- 
ing like rotten fruit at the foot of the tree, Charlie loses his 


balance and falls among them. Then, with no more than a 
glance at the defeated, he takes her into the caravan and they 
drive off. The gypsies come running after, and the old crone, 
admirably played by Leo White, is bowled over with a sud- 
den kick in the stomach from Charlie— it is one of the most 
extraordinary pieces of brutality ever committed by the 
clown, inevitable, effortless and terrifying, for the hag crum- 
ples like a doll stuffed with horse-hair, and almost you hear 
Charlie's wild demented laughter, the laughter of pure tri- 
umph and freedom as he rides off with his girl. 

The idyllic scene which follows repeats the motifs of the 
first encounter. All is tenderness and light, and at the same 
time there is the threat of impermanence. The girl sleeps in 
the caravan. Charlie sleeps in the straw outside, his hands 
tenderly wrapped around his fiddle. He scratches. He dis- 
covers he is sleeping on a cactus, then remakes his bed and 
knocks discreetly on the caravan door. She too is scratching 
herself. Through the woodland comes an artist, the snake in 
the grass. Charlie sends the girl out with a bucket to fetch 
water, cracks eggs open with a hammer, prepares their break- 
fast. Meanwhile the girl is posing for the artist, and Charlie, 
when he learns of it, makes his own drawing of the girl. His 
drawing makes her look like a horse. He rapidly rubs it out. 
Here the themes of The Face on the Bar-Room Floor are 
repeated at a slower pace and with a wonderful tenderness 
and a poignancy so unbearable that when the legend, "His 
romance fades," appears on the screen, we feel the words as 
an affront. 

In the peach-bloom atmosphere of a picture gallery the art- 
ist's painting is recognised by the girl's mother, who imme- 
diately faints. Later she asks the painter where he has seen 
her daughter. He talks of the caravan, and then the caravan 
appears in an iris, and we see a car approaching at the same 
time that Charlie comes into view, balancing some eggs. In 
the car are the girl's father and mother. They spill out, take 
the girl in their arms, and Charlie, of course, is delighted 


with the reconciliation, claps his hands, goes into a little 
dance, expects to be taken away with them, drops the eggs 
on the man's foot, smiles, then apologises for smiling, and 
suddenly the car is rushing away down the slope, and Charlie 
gazes after it, intense and miserable beyond all expectations 
of loneliness, and your heart is twisted as you watch him 
groping with his own miseries. With something of the same 
look he had paused outside of Edna Purviance's office in The 
Bank, when he knew she had rejected his gift of roses; but 
there was hope then, now there is none. In the coda to the 
film as it was shown publicly, the car inexplicably returns 
and Charlie is joyfully carried away in it. In the more ac- 
curate version, which Chaplin has occasionally shown pri- 
vately, Charlie commits a quiet suicide, having first been 
rescued by a harridan who brings him to shore, and then, 
seeing her face, he plunges into the water for the last time. 
Neither ending is satisfactory. The film ends, as it must, with 
Charlie's heartsick look down the long road, in panic fear 
and horror at the impermanence of love, and then the faint- 
est of shrugs, the smallest of happy smiles. 

The Vagabond possesses a perfection which was never quite 
reached by the other great Mutual films. Here the comedy 
was as swift and clean as a mountain stream. Charlie with his 
gypsy caravan is in his element. It is his world, as later on 
he finds a tolerable world in a circus. When he goes to Alaska, 
or trumpets from the dictator's throne, we are aware that he 
is not in the milieu he knows best. There was something 
tawdry in his assumption of a fireman's spurious dignity. 
Chaplin was himself aware that something was missing. When 
The Fireman was being shown, he received a letter from a 
correspondent in the Middle West complaining that he was 
becoming the servant of the public, performing the roles that 
the public demanded, and there was a lack of spontaneity in 
his movements. He was still immensely funny, but the fun 
was cold. "You are becoming the slave of the public, but 
truly you should let the public be your slave." Chaplin de- 


cided that henceforward he would let the public go hang; 
he would perform as he pleased, and then he would be cer- 
tain of touching the authentic comic nerve. One A.M., The 
Pawnshop, Easy Street and The Immigrant were the fruit 
of the new resolve. 

One A.M. is the most fastidious of Chaplin's comedies. It 
is comedy reduced to its brute essentials, and it has nothing 
whatsoever to do with the image of Charlie. Here, for the 
first and last time, Chaplin the clown was photographed, and 
it must be clearly understood that Chaplin the clown is only 
distantly related to Charlie. They share a few mannerisms, 
and that is all. Chaplin, who is perfectly capable of mim- 
ing the part of an enraged bull, a matador and the woman 
with the mantilla who is hoping that the matador will be 
gored to death, miming all these simultaneously, with every 
inflection of movement in place, dragging the whole audience 
into the sunlit arena, imitating the yearning on the matador's 
face with a flicker of an eyelid and the onrush of the bull's 
horns with a jab of a finger, is a clown in his own right with 
a repertoire which extends far beyond the limits of Charlie's 
experience. This is as it must be. We can only regret that 
Chaplin has so rarely been seen on the screen. With One 
A.M. Chaplin entered the realm of pure poetry. 

Theoretically the film is a study of a drunken man return- 
ing home in a taxi and going to bed. In practice, it is con- 
siderably more. In this extremely subversive film, which 
praises drunkenness and offers the most alarming reasons 
why no one should ever sleep alone in a Murphy bed, Chap- 
lin's clowning takes on the aspect of a perpetual dance. He 
dances with everything, and because he dances with them 
they become animate. Arriving in a taxi, and faced with the 
fact that he must pay the fare, he dances a solo with his own 
hands which are wildly attempting to extract money from 
his own pockets. He dances with the door, that terrible mo- 
tionless door which refuses to dance, refuses to open, refuses 
to understand his need to go to bed, and in despair of the 


door Charles Chaplin climbs through the window and opens 
it from inside. Finding himself on the porch he is at first 
surprised, then terrified, then delighted. 

He must now pursue his perilous way upstairs, confronted 
by the obscene bric-a-brac which had once littered the hill- 
top mansion where Tillie enjoyed her punctured romance. 
He moves delicately. The carpet slips. The stuffed lion roars. 
The stuffed bear growls. The table leaps at him. He tries to 
pour himself a drink to calm his fears, but the bottle is on 
the table, and the table is drunk. Discouraged, he makes his 
way upstairs, trips, falls over the banisters, shrugs, climbs the 
stairs again, falls flat on his face, and the bear growls again 
and the stuffed tiger has a look of the utmost contempt, and 
there is nothing to be done except to flee from these ominous 
animals, this world of bric-a-brac. The next time he climbs 
the stairs the stair-carpets enclose him and wrap him up as if 
he was a parcel. The malevolence of things only increases 
when he reaches the landing and has to face an enormous 
sharp-pointed pendulum, which knocks him down into the 
parlor, and the whole horrid business of climbing the stairs 
has to begin again. In this celestial game of snakes and lad- 
ders, the snakes have all the advantages. He sighs, adjusts his 
top-hat, succeeds by the employment of the utmost caution in 
reaching the landing again, and after climbing a teetering 
rubber clothes tree finds himself in his bedroom. 

The bedroom is an offense to the eye, ancestor of Martha 
Raye's bedroom in Monsieur Verdoux with its striped wall- 
paper and tasteless reproductions of sentimental paintings 
torn from ladies' magazines. He presses a button. The Mur- 
phy bed, more malevolent, more cunning than any pendu- 
lum, springs out and knocks him on the head. He decides to 
master it. He will deal with it as a man must deal with a 
recalcitrant woman. He throws one leg over it, forces it down, 
and is not particularly astonished when it swings up and 
spins him into the closet, from which it emerged, that closet 
which is like the lair of some ferocious animal. Now he is at 


his wits' end. Ethereally drunk, happy and delighted with 
the world, having long ago recovered from the exhaustion 
following his combat with the stuffed animals downstairs, 
he regards the state of being at the end of his wits with mag- 
isterial calm. It is a state he is accustomed to. He refuses to 
be conquered by the bed. He will fight it to the last drop of 
his blood, the last flutter of an eyelid, and so once more, ex- 
erting all his force, he grapples with the enemy, forces it to 
surrender, grapples with it as a knight at the court of Charle- 
magne might grapple with a Saracen paladin in full armor, 
and having accomplished his purpose, having settled himself 
very comfortably, he leans over to pick up a cigarette and is 
instantaneously thrown overboard. One might have thought 
that the comedy would end there, that there was a limit to 
the number of things which could happen to Chaplin in the 
struggle with the Murphy bed. Happily, there is no limit. 
Defeated, he re-engages in the battle. Over the imperious 
face there flickers the shadow of cunning. He will wait. He 
will advance stealthily. He will surprise the bed with a sud- 
den assault. He will retreat. He will pretend that going to 
bed is the last thing on his mind. He will allow the bed no 
advantages. He approaches it with a tracker's caution, and 
at the moment when he is about to make his first tentative 
explorations, the bed for no reason at all leaps out of the wall 
right side up. Charlie jumps into it. It collapses under his 
weight, and becomes a thing of twisted wires and grinning 
bestiality. He has had enough. With a look of supreme po- 
liteness at the bed— it is the look which Byron described in 
Vision of Judgment: 

His Darkness and his Brightness 

Exchanged a greeting of supreme politeness 

Charlie marches into the bathroom, and after an unfortunate 
encounter with the shower makes his bed in the bath. 

One A.M. is more than an example of virtuosity. It exists 
on many levels. It can be regarded as pure clowning, as a 


remorseless study of the dithering of a drunk, as an exhibi- 
tion of flamboyant acrobatics, as a bitter attack on beds which 
can be let out of the wall and as a perilous adventure through 
the forest of things. And on that level it is supreme. Never 
again was Chaplin to give himself so wholly to the examina- 
tion of the malevolence of things. 

The Count, which immediately followed One A.M., was a 
mistake. It belongs to the category which produced The 
Floorwalker and The Fireman, and can be disregarded. The 
Pawnshop, which explores some of the things introduced in 
One A.M., cannot be disregarded. It has none of the sharp 
outlines of The Bank and The Vagabond. There is no ten- 
derness in it, no attempt to relate Charlie to the real world, 
and it succeeds only because Charlie emerges in all his glo- 
rious and unwavering idiocy as the creator of a whole dancing 
world of folly. The greatest scene, which is concerned with 
Charlie's awestruck examination of an alarm-clock, mimicks 
at a distance and in another context his fabulous encounter 
with the bed. 

From the time of The Face on the Bar-Room Floor and 
even before, it had become clear that Charlie felt secure only 
when he lived on the teetering edge of the world. He was the 
monkey who climbs to the highest branch of all, where the 
wind blows strongest. Inevitably, then, if he is to be shown 
as a janitor in a pawnbroker's shop, we must see him first 
innocently shoe-polishing the three golden balls which hang 
outside. The ladder teeters as he reaches over to polish the 
signboard, even the policeman on the corner teeters as he 
watches Charlie swaying; the ladder swinging backwards 
and forwards belongs to the stuff of legend. There never was 
such balancing on the edge of nothing. There are roads in 
the Alps marked: "Only for those who never suffer from 
vertigo." From the time of The Pawnshop Charlie showed 
that he suffered from vertigo, but delighted in it. 

Like all of Charlie's films there are two beginnings. There 
is always a preliminary flourish as the musician warms up 


his instruments. So in The Pawnshop we see him tripping 
into the shop, comparing his watch with the calendar on the 
wall, erect and officious, wearing an Old Etonian tie, twid- 
dling his cane which he absentmindedly inserts into a trum- 
pet and then deftly cleans with a feather duster. He places 
his derby in the canary cage for safety, dusts his desk, turns 
on the electric fan and gently inserts the feather duster in 
the fan, till the whole room is a churning mass of feathers. 
All this surprises him faintly. As for the plucked butt of the 
duster, it may have its uses later— this, too, goes into the ca- 
nary cage. Annoyed by the effrontery of the world, and de- 
termined not to show his annoyance, he dances a little jig, 
then stubs his toe. At once he begins to shadow-box with the 
invisible enemy; and with this furious shadow-boxing the 
curtain-raiser comes to an end. 

The third scene describes Charlie's dismissal from the 
pawnbroker's shop. The bearded old ruffian who owns the 
shop has now come to the end of his rope. He can stand 
Charlie no more. He is gruff, impersonal, determined to put 
an end to the nonsense, and he does this in the manner of a 
heavy-handed Victorian "old nobodaddy," with his hands 
behind his back and his watch-chain dangling. Charlie ap- 
peals for mercy. He has eleven children— so high, so high and 
so high, and with a wonderfully pathetic expression Charlie 
demonstrates their height. The height of the tallest is some- 
where near the ceiling. The old proprietor remains ruthless. 
Charlie goes sorrowfully to the door, and there receives his 
reprieve, whereupon he dives at the old man, hugging him 
by the neck and twining his legs around the paunch, and 
kissing him. Then he wanders off to the kitchen, quarrels 
with the other clerk, passes dishes through a clothes-wringer 
to dry them, being especially solicitous of a cup, which passes 
through the wringer twice. Then in the same way he dries 
his hands. He is about to throw some dough at the other 
clerk when the old proprietor appears again. Charlie merely 
swings the dough in the direction of the wringer, passes it 


through, takes a pie plate, trims the dough over it and goes 
out to work, but not before he has accomplished several more 
miracles, including a beautiful Hawaiian lei made of dough 
which he wears perhaps in imitation of Joe Cook refusing 
to imitate four Hawaiians playing a ukelele, and indeed 
Charlie does play a ukelele, and he dances a little shimmy 
to it, though your eyes see only a soup-spoon with Charlie 
thrumming on it. 

The prodigious verve of these scenes is frightening, but 
there is more to come. It is all spontaneous, quick and dart- 
ing as a bird's wing. The drab world has become a dance. He 
throws aside all the advantages which come to him from his 
comic costume; we are no longer aware of the comic costume, 
only the dancing. The deft beauty of his clowning illuminates 
the space he dances in. We are in that perfect world described 
by Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses, that world where "gesture, 
not music, not odours, would be a universal language, the 
gift of tongues rendering visible not the lay sense but the 
first entelechy, the structural rhythm." It is the rhythm of 
these passages which is frightening: it is a rhythm near the 
edge of rhythm; beyond that rhythm itself would become 
something else, sharper, more destructive. It is not that 
Charlie dances so much as that he makes everything in the 
room dance. The clothes wringer becomes his accomplice, 
and even the pastries dance in his hands. Significantly, he 
finds other uses for pie-crusts than flinging them in some- 
one's face. 

The fourth scene continues the dance, which we have long 
suspected to be the dance of a hurled hand-grenade. Now 
we hear the first rumblings of the explosions; the explosion 
itself will also take the form of a dance. There comes into 
the scene an aged actor, whose coat-collar is formed of weary 
squirrel-fur. He comes in very haltingly, and Charlie knows 
why he has come. He is evidently a Shakespearean actor out 
of work, and what can one do with Shakespearean actors? 
Charlie prepares to use a hammer, strikes a Napoleonic pose, 


takes the photograph which the actor shows him— the photo- 
graph evidently reproduces the portrait of the actor playing 
King Richard III— and thereupon Charlie leans over the 
counter and auscultates the actor's heart. The actor shows 
Charlie his wedding ring. Charlie weeps, munching biscuits, 
which he coughs out when the weeping turns to sobbing. 
Charlie returns the ring, takes ten dollars out of the till, and 
is astonished when the actor pulls out an enormous wad of 
dollar bills, and offers Charlie his change. The scene fades 
out when Charlie strikes himself on the head with a hammer. 

The fourth scene, with Charlie playing the part of the eager 
and agonised sympathiser of those who have suffered from 
the world's ills, leads us nowhere, and Charlie is quite aware 
that the dance must continue. He returns to the back room, 
which serves the office of a magic box. An invincible logic 
rules in the shop; no logic at all rules in the back room. He 
sees a piece of rope on the floor. He tries to sweep it up, but 
the rope defies all his efforts. Immediately he decides to 
walk along the rope as a trapeze artist will walk along a tra- 
peze, and this he does with a magnificent swaying and bal- 
ancing of his hands. At the end he applauds himself. There 
is another fight with the other clerk. Charlie is on the point 
of winning when the girl enters. He decides it would be bet- 
ter to play dead. The girl comes to console him. In the mood 
of a man who knows he will be consoled whenever he de- 
sires consolation, he returns to the shop. 

The fifth scene is one of the great wonders of the cinema. 
It is a scene of flagrant violence, and eerie leaps of the imag- 
ination. The hurled hand-grenade explodes. A man who 
looks like a wharf thug enters the shop with an alarm clock, 
evidently stolen from some law-abiding old lady with a pas- 
sion for keeping regular hours. Charlie suspects the wharf 
thug from the beginning. Charlie examines the clock with 
professional interest. Then he auscultates it, taps it with his 
forefinger, like a doctor examining a patient for tuberculosis, 
flicks his forefinger at the bell, stares at the clock, taps it 


again, starts drilling with an auger, but the auger does not 
penetrate into the solid fabric of the clock, and so he employs 
a can-opener instead, and opens the whole thing up, all the 
time giving reassuring glances to the wharf thug, who is hurt 
and astonished by the dance of Charlie's destructive hands. 
Meanwhile Charlie sniffs at the clock (the smell is clearly 
distasteful), and with a disparaging gesture allows the thug 
to smell it. He removes the mouthpiece of a telephone, in- 
serts it in his eye— he has now become the professional exam- 
iner of a clock's entrails— and carefully oils the clock. But the 
oiling has no effect, and more constructive efforts are needed. 
A plumber's hammer is near by. He taps the clock, listens to 
its reverberations, decides that the plumbing is deficient. It 
is time now to use forceps. He now assaults the defenceless 
clock physically, with the purpose of laying it bare, perhaps 
in order to discover the secrets of time. He pulls out the 
spring, measures it off like a ribbon, snips six inches off, then 
shakes out the remaining pieces on the table. The sight of 
those squirming eel-like objects displeases him; to keep them 
quiet he squirts oil over them. He begins to collect the pieces 
together and to wind the empty clock, and then a sudden 
thought occurs to him. Why trouble? Why on earth should 
one trouble? He collects all the pieces, sweeps them into the 
thug's hat, and returns it with a sad shake of his head. In 
this scene the clock has become successively a human heart, 
a sardine tin, a defective lead pipe, a roll of ribbons and a 
mess of eels. It has also been perhaps twenty other things. 

What is wonderful in the scene is not so much the pure 
and unexampled virtuosity of the actor as the casual way in 
which Charlie makes the clock dance. Wyndham Lewis wrote 
once that Charlie's popularity arose for the same reasons that 
brought Bergson's philosophy into prominence. This is non- 
sense. Bergson's theories of intuition and time never accepted 
the possibility that intuition could dance and that time could 
be broken up into its dancing elements. W. C. Fields said of 
Chaplin: "He is the greatest ballet dancer who ever lived." 


Fields omitted to observe that Charlie has the power to make 
every mortal thing dance to his tune. We shall see him in 
Sunnyside parodying classical Greek dancing in a burlesque 
which is never far from appreciation of the original, and 
may very likely improve on the original, but once again we 
see Charlie as the puller of strings, the master of the mario- 
nettes, that godlike figure so brilliantly described by Kleist 
in his essay on the marionette theatre. 

The Pawnshop does not end with the parting salute to the 
clock. There is one further scene in which a robber, disguised 
as a pearl-merchant, holds up the pawnshop. Charlie jumps 
into a trunk. When the pearl-merchant has gathered all the 
valuables from the safe and is about to flee, Charlie leaps out 
of the trunk like a jack-in-a-box, fells the robber, embraces 
the girl, swipes at the other clerk with a back-kick, applauds 
himself and winks with the fadeout. 

Six more comedies were produced for Mutual. They are 
Behind the Screen, The Rink, Easy Street, The Cure, The 
Immigrant and The Adventurer. 

The Rink and The Cure can be dismissed briefly, not be- 
cause they fail to achieve the quality one expects, but be- 
cause both of them introduce freaks and take place in a 
world which is largely constructed from props. Charlie's out- 
rageous behavior in the rink, his magnificent acrobatics, his 
dancing with the stout lady, the strangely beautiful pattern 
he makes on the ice, the insane way he tips his hat simply 
by pressing his head a little closer to the wall, the famous 
scene in which he mixes drinks while performing a hula 
dance, all these are as wonderful as we expect him to be, but 
the total effect is of a set piece circumscribed by the circle of 
the rink. It is true that he tries to break through the circle, 
assaults the shape of the ice, weaves impossible patterns over 
it, but there is no substance in the drama, no reason why we 
should identify ourselves with him or concern ourselves with 
his fate. 

The Cure takes place at a shabby hotel where the patients 


are wheeled around in bath-chairs and a revolving door at 
the head of the stairs offers remarkable constraints to men 
with bandaged and gouty legs. Charlie arrives in a bath-chair, 
wearing a straw hat, pushed by the most incompetent of all 
bath-chair pushers. We wonder what he is doing in the chair, 
and we are never told. He is out of his element. He dislikes 
the freaks who haunt the place. Most of all he dislikes the 
little dwarf of a bearded janitor who helps to take his luggage 
into his room. The luggage consists of an immense chest 
which opens up to show tier upon tier of bottles. Inevitably 
the janitor drinks the bottles; inevitably, when the chest is 
closed, his beard is caught in it. The fun is with the revolv- 
ing doors, as mysterious as mirrors, through which Charlie 
sails with the greatest of ease, but so arranging his passage 
that gouty gentlemen are wedged in them. The film is prodi- 
giously fast, incident follows incident at a merciless pace, 
Charlie is forever running around the massage room and 
along the edge of the pool from which the curative waters 
may be acquired and up and down the stairs and through the 
revolving doors. There are long sequences of these chases, and 
if you play them backwards through the projector, you are 
not aware of any very great difference, and when the film is 
played backwards and Charlie leaps up from the ground in- 
stead of falling, this is as it should be. There are occasional 
magnificent moments: when Charlie has demonstrated the 
strength of his biceps to the nurse, he proceeds to test her 
muscles. When Charlie's bottles are found and the whisky 
finds its way to the curative waters, the following scene is 
played in quick motion, and those excited freaks, running 
backwards and forwards at an unearthly pace, perform a hid- 
eous ballet of their own. In the end, having found Edna 
Purviance, Charlie makes love to her on the edge of the pool. 
Finally he trips into the pool in one glorious drunken splash. 
Behind the Screen and The Adventurer form another pair. 
Each of them possesses moments of acute observation and 
mimicry, but the mood is shrill, restless, even defiant. Slap- 


stick predominates, but the slapstick has an oddly uncertain 
quality. In Behind the Screen no one is content with throw- 
ing a single custard-pie; there must be a torrential flow of 
pies, with everyone acting the part of Jupiter with doughy 
thunderbolts. Charlie is a stagehand. He employs stage-props 
as he employed a mop in The Bank: stage-props are useful 
for knocking people over with. We believe in the mop. We 
never quite believe in the heavy stage-props which Charlie 
carries with such jealous attention to extracting the last 
ounce of humor from them. There is a wonderful passage 
where he carefully combs a bear rug, parts the hair and wraps 
a hot towel over the face. The passage is inserted for no cred- 
ible reason, and might have been inserted to greater advan- 
tage in One AM. In the end everyone falls through a 

The Adventurer, the last of the Mutual films, is a relapse 
into the style of the early Keystones. It begins with Charlie 
wearing the striped uniform of an escaped convict while run- 
ning among the rocks by the seashore with the incompetent 
cops chasing him. He looks like one of the koshare, the "De- 
light Makers" of the pueblo festivals, and indeed whenever 
he is in convict's uniform he gives the impression of reality. 
As he peers from behind the rocks, laughs at the cops who 
fall over themselves, or comes running down to the beach 
with a whole troop of cops behind him, he resembles the pure 
spirit of comedy. When later in his starched shirt, he attends 
a party somewhere in Beverly Hills, and with exquisite tim- 
ing drops some ice-cream from a balcony down the dress of 
a matronly lady below, we are aware that intense calculation 
is now playing a part. The only moment during the party 
when Charlie springs to life is when, during a chase, he wears 
a lampshade and pretends to be a lamp-post: that is, when 
he pretends to be invisible, remote, even dead. 

With Easy Street and The Immigrant the comedy acquires 
amplitude and depth. The clown is always at his best when 
he clowns his own life, and both these films had sources in 


Chaplin's own life. In Easy Street he becomes a cop. For 
Charlie to become a cop is of course an outrageous simpli- 
fication, but Charlie's intentions are plain. They are also 
dishonorable. He will subvert the whole organisation of the 
police, and he will make them the servants of the public, not 
their overlords. He will do this quietly, cunningly, method- 
ically, and if necessary fiercely. The play begins with Charlie, 
the familiar tramp, wandering into the Mission, where he 
sings the mission hymns, makes eyes at Edna Purviance, steals 
the collection box and suffers from a change of heart. It is 
clear that the change of heart is a tribute to Edna's beauty. 
He will become a respectable citizen, but how? The police 
are in despair. Gang war has broken out in Easy Street. In 
the police station wounded policemen are brought in on 
stretchers. Charlie watches the procession of bleeding police- 
men, uncertain of his own intentions, and then remembering 
the eyes of Edna he decides to demonstrate his bravery. Then, 
wearing an enormous helmet, we see him wandering up and 
down Easy Street, twirling his night-stick. The bully appears. 
The mood is the same mood which Chaplin recaptured later 
in The Kid, and indeed Easy Street may be regarded as a less 
complex version of the longer play. The bully has everyone 
in the street at his mercy. He can bend a lamp-post between 
two fingers. With his narrow waist, his enormous height, his 
heavy-jowled face, dressed like a boxer in training, the bully 
regards Charlie with contempt. Charlie runs to the call-box 
and attempts to telephone for reinforcements. He plays with 
the box, pretends that the mouthpiece is a spyglass, and dem- 
onstrates the uses of the magnificent machine to the bully, 
who looks on uncomprehendingly, uncertain what game 
Charlie is playing. Charlie kicks him. The bully has the hide 
of an elephant, does not feel the kick, continues to look 
through the eyepiece, while Charlie deftly jumps on his 
shoulders, forces his head through the top of a lamp-post 
and turns on the gas. The bully is asphyxiated, but not 


quickly enough, for after taking the bully's pulse, Charlie 
decides to turn on more gas. 

The bully is now defeated by an officer of the police and 
Charlie walks down Easy Street like a plumed cock. It is a 
temporary victory. We know the bully will return. Mean- 
while, captivated by Edna, Charlie goes about improving the 
aspect of the street. He comes upon a woman stealing a ham. 
Caught in the act, she tearfully explains that she was hungry, 
and Charlie thrusts in her arms all the vegetables he can pick 
off a neighboring stall. The path of virtue is a dangerous 
one: he receives a flowerpot on his head as the woman's only 
sign of gratitude. No matter: he will continue to dispense a 
proper charity. Ten wailing children are found in a tene- 
ment. Charlie pins a police-badge on the unemployed father, 
perhaps as a reward for having fathered so many brats, and 
then distributes cornflakes to the children, very much as a 
farmer's wife will feed corn to her chickens. Afterwards the 
invention flags. The bully returns to life, and beneath a trap- 
door anarchists are plotting destruction. We know they are 
anarchists because they leer and stuff bombs in their pockets, 
but they include dope fiends. Charlie accidentally receives an 
injection of dope, his courage returns, he performs amazing 
feats of valor and once again the dismal street is officered by 
a smart little policeman twirling his night-stick. We might 
reasonably expect the film to end there, but instead there is 
an announcement to be made and one final apotheosis. The 
announcement, based on a song sung by London street-arabs 
while playing hopskotch, reads: 

Love backed by force, 
Forgiveness sweet, 
Bring Hope and Peace 
To Easy Street. 

They do indeed, and much more than we ever expected, 
for the curtain scene shows Easy Street already sprouting 
wings. Everyone is reformed, and even the bully and his wife, 


wearing their Sunday best, dance off to the mission to receive 
the blessings of divine peace. Charlie and Edna walk together. 
The pilgrim's progress is over; the trumpets sound on the 
other side. 

The Immigrant is made of sterner stuff. The reckless gai- 
ety of Easy Street is absent; there is no attempt to recapture 
emotion in tranquillity. Charlie is the perpetual D.P., wise 
beyond his years, a poor devil crowded among all the other 
poor devils on the immigrant ship, where the passengers are 
roped off like cattle and the gamblers steal from the poorest 
and the ship's officers are unyielding. We see Charlie leaning 
over the rail. It is obvious that he is being sick— terribly sick. 
His sufferings are atrocious. He stands on tiptoe, shuddering 
in every fibre of his being, and after his shoulders have 
shaken with terrible violence, he turns to face the camera 
with a fish on the end of his line. It is not a very large fish, 
but Charlie is content with the small things of life. Suddenly 
the comedy disappears. An old Jewish woman and her daugh- 
ter have been robbed by gamblers. Charlie's face becomes 
taut with anger. He is all fire. He invites the gamblers to a 
crap game, cheats wonderfully and restores the money to the 
old woman and her daughter, while the ship's purser looks 
on, sure that Charlie is a thief. The Statue of Liberty is seen, 
the immigration officers come aboard, and now the immi- 
grants are herded behind ropes. Oddly enough, Charlie al- 
lows himself to be herded in, cocking an eyebrow on the 

Next we see him down and out in New York. He finds a 
coin in the street, picks it up and thrusts it into his pocket, 
that wide and capacious trouser pocket which is full of holes. 
In a restaurant he settles down to spend the coin, sees Edna, 
dances up to her, behaves with childish delight, brimming 
with joy. Suddenly the joy freezes, once more there is that 
look of helpless anger. Edna has a black-bordered handker- 
chief crushed between her fingers. He can do nothing. He 
can only delight and amuse her with the wealth of his comic 


invention. He will make her smile, and he will do this in 
spite of the world's malevolence, and the world, as he knows 
only too well, is excessively malevolent. His coin is lost. He 
cannot pay for the meal, and the waiters are adepts at man- 
handling impoverished diners. The desperate game is played 
with ruthless efficiency. Everything depends upon the toss of 
a coin. An old beggar found the coin which slipped through 
Charlie's pocket. The coin is then offered to the waiter, who 
drops it. Charlie with his eagle eyes sees it while he is attempt- 
ing with all his means to please Edna. His foot darts out and 
covers it. The waiter stamps on his foot. There is no end to 
the adventures of the coin, or rather there is an end: the coin 
is discovered to be counterfeit when the waiter puts it be- 
tween his teeth. An artist enters. He is delighted with Edna's 
beauty, strangely attracted to Charlie. He offers to pay for 
the meal. Charlie refuses, out of bravado, politeness and the 
pure pleasure of meeting the artist. The game of the coin is 
continued in the game for the check, as both grandiloquently 
thrust it at the other, and Charlie's face, so eager, so winning 
and fiery, assumes a thousand shapes of contentment and joy 
in the new friendship. An outcast, he now has two friends, 
an artist who understands him and a girl he will marry. 
"Money?" he says. "Good lord, why should one worry over 
a little thing like money?" The artist gently acquiesces, and 
Charlie is left with the check. As they leave, Charlie observes 
that the artist has mercifully left a tip which more than covers 
the expense of the meal. The rain falls in the empty street. 
The two waifs, Charlie and Edna, huddle outside the mar- 
riage bureau, and then, with a sudden swift turn up the stair- 
way, they disappear into the anonymity of marriage. 

The Immigrant is fashioned in two parts, but so deftly 
are they woven together that we are not aware of the break. 
The scene in New York follows logically on the scene in the 
ship; so much sympathy is created for Edna and her mother 
that the mother's death comes as a shock of the utmost poig- 
nancy. The desperate game with the coin is played out to the 


end, but it is a real game, a game to be played with unre- 
generate courage; the prize is Edna, a sense of security in 
the world. There were to be occasions later when Charlie's 
fate would hang in the balance: in The Immigrant this very 
balancing partook of splendor. He had never quite touched 
this nerve before; he very rarely touched it with such accu- 
racy again. If the most accomplished single scene of the Mu- 
tual comedies was the alarm-clock scene in The Pawnshop, 
the scene of the lost coin in The Immigrant runs it close. 
The humor belonged to the comedy of the soul's and body's 
fortitudes; having its habitation in the place where urgent 
sorrows, ghostly catastrophes and all our useless striving meet. 
The coin was a coin, but just as the alarm-clock became any- 
thing Charlie pleased, so here the coin became everything 
that gave Charlie acute displeasure; and his mortal anguish 
and bewilderment, his wonderful and frenzied efforts to 
destroy each uprising of anguish as it appeared, belongs to 
the human situation and the ''tears of things." 

With the last of the Mutual comedies Chaplin had ex- 
plored most of the territory Charlie ever came to know. In 
the five films that followed the influence of The Immigrant 
can be discerned, but now the music will no longer be played 
on a single instrument, it will be performed to a full or- 

Chapter Twelve 

The Angel in a Cloud 

In the second act of Jean Giraudoux's Mad 
Women of Chaillot we are presented with the spectacle of 
three old hags discussing in an obscure cellar in Paris how 
they will put an end to all. the evil in the world. They talk 
with wit and understanding. They are alarmed by the pres- 
ence of evil, and they know exactly who the evil are. In a 
conspiratorial whisper, Aurelie, who calls herself a countess, 

Everywhere men are giving themselves the air of constructors, 
but in fact they are all secretly resolved upon destruction. Every- 
thing they build as masons they destroy as free-masons. They 
construct the embankments to the ruin of the rivers, and houses 
to the ruin of quarries. They have built the Palais de Chaillot 
only by destroying the Trocadero. They even use up space and 
the whole heavens with their telescopes, and they use up time 
with their watches. The primary occupation of humanity is the 
universal business of demolition. I speak, of course, of the males. 

So they go on, these obscure and wonderful old women, in 
love with the past, concerned with the imaginary poodle 
which runs between their legs, remembering one another's 
titles, always talking wisely on the edge of hysteria and as 
though they had all time to talk in, dismissing the obvious 
ways of putting an end to evil, the hatchet and the sulphuric 


acid bath, for there must be other ways— but what ways? The 
Countess ponders. 

It occurs to her that there is a very simple solution, and 
she cannot understand why she never thought of it before. 
All that is necessary is to invite the bankers, the presidents, 
the robbers and the thieves to meet her in her cellar. They 
will come: so much is certain. And what then? Why, noth- 
ing could be easier. Everyone is in love with wealth. She 
will point to the buried oil-wells beneath her bed, and they 
will come trooping down to examine this buried wealth; 
then very calmly, when they are looking the other way, she 
will move the bed over them, and prevent them from ever 
returning. And this is what happens. She has their addresses 
in her little notebook. She invites them into her web, and 
so they die, but when it is all over, she announces that some- 
thing else has happened. No, they did not come, it was not 
even necessary for them to come, the proud and the evil had 
simply evaporated, for it is the characteristic of the proud 
and the evil that they should evaporate. "They think they 
are eternal," says the incomparable countess Aurelie, "and 
men believe them, and they do everything they possibly can 
to be eternal— they avoid colds in the head and speeding 
motorcars. But they are not eternal: their pride, their cupid- 
ity, the evil in them makes them so hot that they simply 
evaporate. I remember reading about a millionaire who was 
killed when his airplane fell into the sea. It's all lies. The 
airplane simply took it into its head to fall in with some in- 
nocent sardines, and the financier evaporated." 

In the world of the Countess evil proliferates. She knows 
its signs. Like Alice in Wonderland, who lived in the same 
world and fought a very similar battle, she employs all the 
weapons of wit, cunning and hysteria to straighten out the 
entanglements of the world, and in all this she resembles 
those tightrope walkers who are not content merely to walk 
along the rope, but must simultaneously play a musical in- 
strument, balance a billiard cue on their noses, juggle im- 


mense slave-rings round their legs and perform conjuring 
tricks with their free hands. 

So it is with Charlie. He does not live in one world. He 
lives in all possible worlds, and plays with them all, and if 
he finds living in one world too dangerous, he will simply 
slip into another, as we do when we daydream, and always 
he is faced with the incontrovertible fact of evil, the financier 
who refuses to evaporate, the airplane which refuses to dis- 
appear in a shoal of sardines, the bully who refuses to don 
the wings of the angel. He is aware that his weapons are 
various, that he can step suddenly from one world to another 
or embrace two worlds at once, and like the Countess Aurelie 
he possesses the secret by which evil can be put to rout. What 
is the name of the secret? We can only guess at it. Partly, of 
course, it is his unbelievable heroism, for he will attack his 
enemies as the Countess Aurelie attacks hers, but it is also 
his dancing gaiety, his sense of the embattled holiness of life, 
his knowledge of the enemy's weaknesses. "You do not need 
a battle-ax to kill your enemy," wrote the Chinese philos- 
opher. "No, all that is necessary is to insert a knife-blade a 
little way into his flesh, and if you have found the right place, 
his flesh and his bones will come apart." "True enough," 
says Charlie, "but what if it is the enemy which first inserts 
the knife?" 

During 1918 and 1919 Chaplin composed three films for 
First National which are more magical than any he composed 
before or afterwards. It is as though in a brief space towards 
the end of a war the figure of Charlie had suddenly sprung 
into its full maturity. They are the most poetic of his films, 
and he was never again to recapture the precise quality of 
that poetry. These films were A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms 
and Sunnyside. One dealt with poverty, another with war 
and the third with paradise. 

A Dog's Life is concerned with poverty so harsh that it is 
wholly without compensations. No daydreams can make it 
more palatable. Charlie is a derelict, a poor devil at his last 


gasp, asleep in a wasteland, protected from the wind only by 
a rotten fence. There are holes in the fence; he stuffs a hand- 
kerchief in the holes to keep out the draught. Not far away 
there is an ashcan, and the dog Scraps sleeps beside it. The 
ashcan is the center of their world, just as the underground 
cellar is the center of the world according to Countess Au- 
relie. Like the Countess, Charlie is compelled to put an end 
to the evils of his enemies. He has no desire to kill them; 
he will simply tie them into knots and so render them harm- 
less. The smell of a hot-dog stand comes over the fence. 
Through a hole in the fence Charlie steals a hot-dog. Hun- 
gry, he is wholly absorbed in eating when he sees the cop 
gazing over the fence, whereupon with a show of innocence 
he returns the hot-dog to its stand. The cop, however, at- 
tempts to pursue him. Charlie first rolls under the fence when 
the cop climbs over it, then rolls back again when the cop 
comes out into the street. Finally, to keep the policeman 
from disturbing him, Charlie ties the cop's shoelaces together. 
It is a neat solution, and the Countess Aurelie might reason- 
ably have attempted to do the same with the oil men and 
municipal councillors who were her declared enemies. To- 
gether with his dog, Charlie wanders away. 

For Charlie the world consists of a straight line between 
the ashcan and the employment office. At the employment 
office he is at the mercy of the jobhunters. He rushes to the 
windows, but he is always edged out, Sad Sack contending 
with his doom. He runs madly from one window to another, 
and it is always the same. The tempo mounts. He runs 
around like a mad dog, and when at last he comes up to a 
window, it shuts in his face. There are no more jobs. There 
remains the ashcan. 

Charlie, contemplating his own empty belly, looks up to 
see that Scraps has found some discarded bones, but Scraps 
has hardly fastened his teeth on them when all the other dogs 
of the neighborhood come running at him. The theme of the 
scene at the employment office is repeated on another plane 


when Scraps has to fight with the other dogs for his bone. It 
is Charlie who saves Scraps, and that is as it should be: we 
recognise the justness of the vagabond who will save the dog 
even to the extent of being torn nearly to pieces by the dogs 
who are not content with their bone but must run howling 
after Charlie, jumping up at him, taking a great bite from 
his pants. All this is Charlie at his most tragic. "Where do 
the dogs go at night?" Baudelaire asked once, and found him- 
self bewildered by the thought of the immense and unknown 
tragedies of the lonely wanderers of the night. Charlie is just 
as bewildered, but he knows the tricks of his trade. When 
Scraps tries to get milk from a milk-bottle and cannot get 
his head in, Charlie thinks of the dog's tail, dips it in the milk 
and thereupon Scraps can have his lick. Sometimes he em- 
ploys simpler tricks, as when he goes hunting after a string 
of sausages. Then, once again, we find ourselves on familiar 
territory: that audacious play with pies and sausages goes 
back to the Roman theatre, and both Deburau and Grimaldi 
had played those scenes to the uttermost. When the police- 
man is smacked across the face with a large sausage, it is as 
though the veils had been lifted and we were once more with 
Grimaldi at Drury Lane. 

"Where do the dogs go at night?" The question has never 
been sufficiently answered. In tragedy and in comedy they 
find other lonely devils, and so comfort themselves by mul- 
tiplying their loneliness. That night Charlie wanders off to 
a cabaret, hiding Scraps in his baggy pants. There, as one 
might have known, he meets Edna Purviance singing senti- 
mental songs and making a bare living as a cabaret artist. 
She smiles at him. It is enough. His soaring spirit is at peace. 
He is brave enough now to invite her to a drink, and when 
he is thrown out by the bouncer he hardly cares: he has 
known felicity. 

Charlie's felicity is always a tenuous thing, and when 
Scraps digs up a wallet hidden by some thieves, we know that 
he is tempting fate. The vision of a life lived with Edna and 


the dog in great wealth tempts him, but the classical sin of 
hubris has been committed: he must fight bitterly for that 
final contentment. In the concluding passages of the film 
Charlie virtually attacks the thieves like a one-man siege 
army. They find him; they know he has the wallet; and they 
are determined to regain it. In the finest western style they 
fire their six-shooters. Charlie has no respect for six-shooters. 
He knocks them off with a mallet. We see him wandering 
happily down the road with the girl and the dog by his side. 
An intolerable melancholy hangs over these concluding 
scenes. For how long will he keep the wallet, the girl and 
the dog? 

He does not keep them for long. In Shoulder Arms he is 
once more alone in the world, friendless, far from any girl, 
in the muddy swamps of the trenches of France, embittered 
and silly and happy in his own way. We see him at drill: his 
immense boots are forever getting in his way. We see him in 
the trench staggering under the weight of a destiny which 
takes the form of trenching tools, knapsacks, a huge mouse- 
trap, a cheese-grater, whatever he could scrounge from the 
PX. He is Sad Sack with a glint of real madness in his eyes. 
In A Dog's Life he showed pity for the poor because he was 
poor. In Shoulder Arms he shows pity for the soldiers for the 
good reason that he is a soldier himself. Authority he regards 
as an ingenious addition to his burdens: he fights authority 
with an enviable carelessness, and when the sergeant dresses 
him down, he makes sure that the sergeant will catch his 
fingers in the mousetrap. On guard duty, while the rain falls, 
he is in his element. The misery is so complete that he must 
set to dreaming of Third Avenue bars, but the dreams fade, 
there is only the rain falling, and there are no letters from 
home— where is his home? How eagerly he rushes to confront 
the postman, and how disconsolately he looks at the letters 
which are delivered to everyone else. He is alone in the 
world. He belongs to the wasteland of the spirit, to the world 
where all enjoyment is vicarious and all suffering is real. He 


peers over the shoulder of a soldier reading a letter from 
home, his face wreathed with joy when he learns that the 
soldier has become a father, and then crestfallen he returns 
to his mousetrap and nibbles the cheese. When he does re- 
ceive a parcel it is sent by one of those murderous pranksters; 
it is a parcel of dog-biscuits. No: he does not belong here. 
He belongs to the dugouts, the muddy roads, the leafless 
trees. He tries to sleep, but the water rises, and he is about 
to drown, as he drowned once before in The Rounders, but 
if he must drown, he is determined that he should accom- 
plish his destiny in good style. Beneath the level of the water 
lies his soggy pillow. He reaches down for it, admires it, 
smooths it, fluffs it out, kisses it, and returns it to its watery 
grave; and when the water covers his face, he reaches over 
for a phonograph horn and breathes happily through it. 

All this is but a prelude. Charlie's legitimate world is the 
eternally recurrent world of zero hour. He is forever being 
ordered over the top. Yet, in his charmed life, in his absence 
of counterfeit, in his strenuous incitement to good, he has 
the power to survive. The ladder is prepared for him. At an 
order he hurls himself up the ladder and runs to meet the 
enemy; but his foot is caught in the topmost rung of the lad- 
der, and he sails down into the trench, into the mud, into 
the world where it is always zero hour. When we see him 
again he has captured a whole flock of Germans who wander 
within a lunar landscape with their hands above their heads. 
"How did you capture them?" the sergeant asks with some 
surprise. "I surrounded them," Charlie answers; and when 
you see the film today, you shudder at the strange coinci- 
dences. In just such a miraculous way, Hitler announced his 
capture of some Scottish soldiers in 1917. 

Charlie hates the trench, but it is the world he knows, and 
his accomplishments within that world are prodigious, ac- 
curate and always charming. Jean Cocteau once said of 
Shoulder Arms that it moved to the rhythm of kettledrums. 
It does nothing of the sort. It moves to the rhythm of Chi- 


nese crackers, and you never know when the next explosion 
will occur. Charlie in the trench never acquiesces to the dis- 
integration of the world around him; he will use everything 
to his own advantage. The born scrounger, the born pur- 
loiner of discarded remnants, he employs a nutmeg grater to 
scratch his back on, and enemy bullets sailing over the trench 
are employed to light his cigarettes by friction or to break 
open the necks of beer bottles. He will find enjoyment where 
he can. He chalks up his successes like a man chalking up his 
tally at billiards; when his helmet is shot away, he solves the 
problem of human justice by simply erasing the last tally- 
mark; in that way justice will be satisfied. 

Shoulder Arms is a comic film where there is almost no 
fooling; it is still the most serious and the most imaginative 
film produced on the subject of World War I. Its roots lay in 
the disasters of the time, disasters so terrible that they were 
only bearable when regarded as part of the pattern of an in- 
sane comedy. When Charlie emerges out of the trenches and 
performs a wonderful dance among the trees, he employs the 
traditional acrobatics of the Commedia dell' Arte. Charlie 
disguised as a tree, running away from the Germans, then 
advancing towards them, freezing into immobility when he 
is about to be discovered, is only the modern form of Pul- 
cinella who, in the classic drama of Pulcinella the Brigand 
Chief, evaded his pursuers by becoming a weathercock, and 
then a milestone, and then a tortoise in a forest. But what 
Charlie did to the tree belongs to white magic. The hollow 
tree-trunk did not look like Charlie, did not walk like 
Charlie, possessed no mustache, no derby and no swagger- 
stick, but it was pure Charlie. If Charlie had been able to 
speak, then the tree would have been able to speak, and it 
would have spoken in Charlie's authentic voice. And when 
the tree jabbed a German who was bayonetting all the trees 
in sight, the jab was the appropriate jab as it would be per- 
formed by a wandering tree which had suddenly taken it in 
its head to be Charlie. Such moments of authentic mystery 


and wonder never occurred again in Shoulder Arms, and 
after these forest scenes the film gradually splutters out; but 
it is the virtue of Chinese crackers that their last splutters 
are more resounding than the first, and when Charlie arrests 
the Kaiser and the Crown Prince while disguised in a Ger- 
man uniform, his fastidious pleasure in the victory as the car 
swings into the allied lines is itself as resounding as fire- 
crackers. It is a real victory, accomplished with a considerable 
amount of the inevitable casuistry which attends such vic- 
tories: there are locked closets, huge processions of goose- 
stepping soldiers, bewildering escapes, a charming French 
girl who possesses some of Charlie's own savoir-faire and an 
oddly engaging German to help him. The allies toss their 
caps in the air. By the capture of the Kaiser and the Crown 
Prince Charlie has successfully brought the war to an end. 
This is as it should be, and when we see Charlie waking up 
from his dream in the camp we feel cheated. 

The original ending was better. In this original version 
Charlie was honored by the heads of the allied states for his 
singlehanded capture of the Kaiser and the Crown Prince. 
An immense banquet is held for him in the Palace of Ver- 
sailles. Poincare and all the other dignitaries speak of Char- 
lie's accomplishments; he smiles drowsily, drunk with cham- 
pagne, and only rises to his feet to make a speech after the 
most illustrious of the guests have prompted him. While he 
is making his inebriated reply, the King of England snips a 
button from his uniform as a souvenir. 

Shoulder Arms showed that Charlie possessed unsuspected 
powers. He had guyed the cops in Los Angeles, made havoc 
of pretensions as they showed themselves on Santa Monica 
Boulevard, destroyed with a single lift of his eyebrows all the 
esoteric charms of the well-fed, and now he was demonstrat- 
ing that the same qualities could guy the German army and 
the treaty-makers. The concluding portion of the original 
version was in keeping with Charlie's thesis: that mockery is 
the happiest weapon of all. He had guyed the Kaiser. Why 


not guy the King of England? Abraham Lincoln said once: 
"I laugh because I must not cry— that's all, that's all." Chap- 
lin could, and did reply: "I laugh because I laugh, and to 
laugh is sufficient reason for existence, and there is no limit 
to our laughter." There was always a hint of didacticism in 
him. He was not content to work miracles; he must find the 
reasons for the miracles, and explain them to his own satis- 
faction. "Always preaching to himself, like an angel from a 
cloud, but in none . . . here picturing a vice so as to make 
it ugly to those that practised it: and a virtue so as to make 
it beloved, even by those that loved it not; and all this with 
a most particular grace and an inexpressible addition of 
comeliness." It is Donne delivering a sermon to His Majesty 
at Whitehall, but it might have been a description of Charlie; 
and the triumphant return through the enemy lines with the 
Kaiser in tow was among the most comely and gracious acts 
he ever accomplished. Nevertheless, it was ungracious of him 
not to permit the King of England to snip off his button as a 
souvenir. In the world of comedy, which does not obey the 
laws of the nations, such an action would have been perfectly 
appropriate; there is even a kind of impropriety in not al- 
lowing it to take place. 

Charlie, the angel in the cloud, tumbling to earth when- 
ever it pleased him, returning to the cloud whenever he 
desired, behaved with decorum even when he was living in 
the most improbable of worlds. One should therefore expect 
that among the true improbabilities of Versailles, the King 
of England should behave with the same disregard of pro- 
tocol. In the history of the world there have been very few 
clowns, and their buttons, for all we know, may be precious. 

In Shoulder Arms Charlie explored the enchanted world 
of war; in Sunnyside he explored the enchantments of sum- 
mer. The film opens with the steeple of a small church dom- 
inating a quiet country village. Charlie is back from the 
wars. He is now a hired man on a farm, and this is exactly 
what he wants to be. He is happy there, though the owner 


of the farm operates a hotel and Charlie is hotel drudge as 
well as cowman, forever at odds with his master. He works 
so hard that he has no time for sleep, and is the prey to all 
the enticements of laborsaving devices. He has accomplished 
miracles of laborsaving during the war, and he now finds no 
difficulty in milking cows into the coffeepots. Edna Pur- 
viance will console him; and as he gazes dreamily into her 
young face, he knows the contentment of passion, and if he 
is pouring out sugar when he sets eyes on her, he will con- 
tinue to pour out sugar until she has moved away, and if he 
is herding his cows and sees her at the crossroads, then he 
will allow the cows to go wherever they desire rather than 
forget to watch her. The pure tenderness of his enchanted 
gaze remains long after the cows have disappeared down a 
country lane, wandering to their hearts' content among the 
surrounding meadows. Charlie must bring them back into 
line. He is all hurry and perplexity; it was easier to deal with 
German prisoners. The sun is setting. If he cannot get them 
back into the lane, they will be lost forever. He is half- 
blinded by the sun, mistakes a fat stranger for a cow, takes 
him by the shoulders and peers at him intently to see 
whether he is a lost cow. At last he herds the cows together, 
but when in his triumph he rides one of them bareback, he 
is unceremoniously thrown into a mountain stream, and the 
second reel of the three-reeler describes his dream. 

There never was a dream quite like the dream in Sunny- 
side. The French, who have great taste in these matters, 
called the whole film L'Idylle aux champs, as though it were 
nothing else but this dream, and indeed every incident in the 
dream is memorable and we can forget the rest without too 
much harm. Charlie awakes from the stream to see four girls 
dressed in transparent Greek tunics dancing in the meadow- 
land where only a little while before the cows were wander- 
ing. He plucks a daisy and arranges his hair to represent two 
black horns. Now at last he is truly and admittedly Pan, with 
the flower as the badge of his authority; but since a flower 



The Tramp as Himalayan Saint 
in The Gold Rush (United Artists, 1925) 

The Tramp as Ink Spot in the Snow 
from The Gold Rush 

The Affections of the Tramp 
from The Gold Rush 













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The Tramp Addressing His Troops 
from T/ie GreflJ Dictator 


can serve many purposes, he decides to play on it; and so 
piping Pan-like on the daisy he joins their dance. He dances 
superbly. He becomes the strange figure clothed in black and 
white who dominates the tragedy of Les Sylphides. There is 
no burlesque. The dance is performed as a holy rite. It is 
true that at a moment of Bacchanalian frenzy he steps on a 
cactus patch, but he keeps pace with the dance even when, 
with a disdainful glance at the cactuses, he removes them 
from his legs. When the dance is over the handmaidens tend 
him on a bed of flowers, and then he is in the utmost heaven, 
for all four of the maidens smile at him and demand his 
favors. But it is the dance one remembers most for its grace 
and agility, and the sudden opening of the lens into the 
wider perspectives of paradise. There were to be other dances 
later. When he dance-pantomimed the story of David and 
Goliath in The Pilgrim, and when he performed a table 
dance with rolls in The Gold Rush, and when he danced 
with a balloon in The Great Dictator, he showed that he 
could dance with a purpose; but in Sunnyside he pretended 
to no purpose. He was dancing because one dances in para- 
dise, and there is no reason for it. The dance ends, and then 
it seems that there is no reason for the film to continue. 

The last reel of Sunnyside is almost bathos. It could hardly 
be otherwise. The inevitable city slicker arrives, throwing 
Charlie into a state of anguish for fear that he will lose Edna. 
Charlie comes with a bouquet of flowers to her window, only 
to discover the city slicker in possession of Edna's heart. The 
flowers which are his perpetual emblem are now discarded; 
he will imitate the city slicker to the wretch's disadvantage, 
and this he does by the employment of all the artifices which 
his teeming brain can imagine. His waistcoat and cuffs are 
fashioned from paper, his spats from a pair of old socks, his 
elegant walking stick is topped, not with ivory, but with a 
carefully trimmed candle. So equipped, he advances towards 
his conquest, and once again he finds the masher in com- 
mand. Charlie turns towards an oncoming automobile, deter- 


mined to put an end to his sufferings and throw himself 
headlong. He awakes. Once more it is only a dream. The 
masher departs, and leaves him in sole possession of the be- 
loved Edna. 

In these three films the quality of tenderness was expressed 
with the most winning gestures and with a hint of weariness. 
The loneliness which characterised Charlie in the early films, 
and was to enshroud him again later, plays no part. We are 
not asked to sympathize with him: we are asked to rejoice 
with him, even in his moments of illimitable sadness, even in 
his greatest misery. It is the mood of Shakespeare's Tempest 
and the posthumous quartets of Beethoven, where the sharp 
and strident dissonances attempt, but never quite succeed, 
in mastering the simple aimless dance-tunes which form the 
groundswell of the music. Caliban roars, but Ariel plucks at 
the sleeve and Miranda laughs gaily in her cavern adorned 
with seashells, knowing that the kingdom will be given back 
to her father. They are small films; they do not embrace a 
wide territory, nor do they go deeply into things. That pity 
for the poor, for soldiers and for dreamers was not pathos; 
it was pity, and nothing more. Afterwards, enlarging his can- 
vas, the emotions became more complex, and the strident 
notes were more often heard. Never again was there to be 
that simple sweetness, nor should anyone have desired it. 

Chapter Thirteen 

The Kid 

VV ith The Kid for the first time Chaplin 
opened the shutter wide and said what he wanted to say in 
his own leisurely time. If we exclude Tillie's Punctured Ro- 
mance, where he was neither the director nor the star per- 
former, it was the longest of his films, the most obviously 
autobiographical and the most mature; and it was graced 
by the presence of Jackie Coogan who, on a smaller and gen- 
tler scale, was the spittin' image of Charlie, with the same 
air of furious refinement and casual indifference to the hor- 
rors of the mercenary world. Here, too, there appeared for 
the first time the full measure of the pathos which had been 
present in most of the earlier films, and nowhere more re- 
markably than in The Bank, but now the sense of pathos 
was explored, made credible, placed in a setting where there 
could be no doubt of its relevance. 

In the past Charlie had always been in search of his alter 
ego. He found it in Mabel Normand, whose wonderful pet- 
ulance imitated his own, and he was to find it again in Mari- 
lyn Nash when he came to portray Monsieur Verdoux. But 
Jackie Coogan was more than an alter ego; he was the young 
Charlie, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, the world's 
imp reduced to the size of a mocking child. Chaplin was able 
to do with Coogan what no other director has ever done or 



could do with a child star. He recreated him in his own 
image, with the result that the two together, the little raga- 
muffin and the tramp, were able to create an overwhelming 
tide of sympathy for both. And since Charlie, under one or 
another of his disguises, was continually present on the 
screen, there was never a moment when the attention flagged. 
In this sense the film was a tour de force. It was also an as- 
tonishing example of Chaplin's power to infuse poetry into 
the slightest gestures— when he wipes his nose or picks out 
cigarette stubs from a sardine can, or sticks his big toe 
through the hole of a worn bed-cover, the artistry is now 
complete, rounded, perfected to a pitch which makes the best 
of the early films look as though they had been composed by 

Chaplin's progress had never been by leaps and bounds. 
It was always inch-meal, arrived at by the slow and careful 
examination of his own artistry. Monsieur Verdoux was to 
include a hundred touches which were employed before; they 
were more subtle, the manner of their arrangement had 
changed, but basically the touches were the same. So it was 
in The Kid. The doss-house scenes were not so comic as those 
in Triple Trouble, nor so ferocious, but they derived from 
them. The relationship between Charlie and the boy was 
very similar to the relationship between Charlie and the lit- 
tle mongrel dog in A Dogs Life. The dream sequence fol- 
lowed something of the same pattern as the wonderful dream 
sequence in Sunnyside. There were perhaps twenty other in- 
cidents which could be traced to their origins in earlier films, 
but there was also something prodigiously new. Previously 
Chaplin dealt in caricature, and there was hardly a film which 
did not contain its huge, grotesque and gesticulating giants, 
its mad pygmies, its fork-bearded dwarfs, its senile long- 
necked women. Quite suddenly the perspective changes. In 
The Kid everyone is reduced to a normal scale except the 
bruiser, and he becomes in time as normal as the others, to 
be accepted like the others as part of the lost world in the 


hideous little alleyway off the Kennington Road. Burlesque 
disappears; so do the freaks. And with the disappearance of 
the freaks, pathos comes into its own, for one does not pity 
the freaks, and it is only with difficulty that one can have 
tenderness for them. 

In The Kid Chaplin bathes all his characters in the light 
of his tenderness, so that there are even moments when the 
tenderness becomes altogether too much, and he verges dan- 
gerously on the edge of being mawkish; but having reached 
that edge, he retires gracefully and just in time. The pity is 
real, intense, terrible. It is like the pity of the suicide at the 
last moment when he hangs on the window-ledge of his room 
on the fifty-ninth floor of a hotel and sees all the people 
crowding and milling in the streets below, and suddenly all 
his despairing love, all his tenderness for these people is ex- 
pressed in a choking sob and with a little salute performed 
by the hand which a moment ago was clinging to the ledge. 
In The Kid Chaplin performs the salute without the need 
of climbing to the fifty-ninth floor and without the need 
of suicide; all that was necessary for him was to think back 
to his childhood on Kennington Road. 

There are two kinds of pathos: the pathos of despair and 
the pathos of happiness. Both are present in The Kid. The 
pathos of happiness is seen at the very beginning when 
Charlie comes jauntily down the street, swinging his cane. 
Never has he been so jaunty. Rubbish is thrown out of win- 
dows onto his head. He not only does not care, but accepts 
the rain of garbage as though it were providential, delighted 
with it, delighted with these people who have nothing better 
to do than present him with the evidence of their good sense 
—what else can one do with garbage but throw it out of the 
window? There follows the famous scene in which he del- 
icately extracts a cigarette butt from his shiny cigarette case, 
a doctored sardine tin, then tamps it to shake down the excess 
tobacco, and all the time holds it with the delicacy of a 
French aristocrat in a salon holding a cigar, but a still finer 


scene occurs immediately afterwards when he glances at his 
gloves where the fingers are worn through, and having gazed 
at them with a look of long-suffering acquaintance, as one 
might gaze at a maiden aunt, he negligently throws them into 
a refuse can. The negligence is superb; it is also pathetic, for 
though the gesture involves the whole of Charlie and under- 
scores his courageous refusal to be discountenanced by slums 
and poverty, the slums and poverty remain: and one won- 
ders why, having thrown his ragged gloves away, he does not 
also throw his ragged trousers into the refuse can. 

It is a wonderful introduction to Charlie, and immediately 
there are more wonders to come, for soon we are introduced 
to a crone, sister of the wild gypsy woman in The Vagabond, 
who is trundling her worn-out baby carriage through the 
miserable streets, and Charlie's efforts to put the swaddled 
baby he has found into her baby-carriage are pure comedy, 
but they are also tragedy. There is a calculated ferocity in 
the woman which is astounding. She belabors him with an 
umbrella. She screams her curses at him. In The Vagabond, 
faced with a crone of such exemplary evil, Charlie simply 
kicked her into the dust, and the passage in which he kicks 
her has something of the impact of stark tragedy. This time 
the crone wins. A cop arrives. Charlie is compelled to assume 
his burden, and as he wanders disconsolately away, the baby 
in his arms, he very carefully removes his hand from the 
place which might reasonably be expected to get wet, and 
when he comes to a manhole he contemplates with the keen- 
est imaginable relish the idea of simply dropping the baby 
into it. 

There is a wonderful play on his features during these 
early scenes. The mood varies instantaneously. Shortly after- 
wards we see him living with the boy, and three or four years 
have passed, and by this time the tramp is tamed. No longer 
are there such quick changes of expression, such alarming 
visions, such terrible crones. Charlie is concerned with the 
boy to the exclusion of his own worldly joys, his own fas- 

THE KID 185 

tidious tastes, and from the moment when we first see him 
with the boy the pathos of despair hangs over him. We know, 
and Charlie knows, that the boy will be taken from him. Such 
pleasures do not last. But while he is with the boy he is de- 
termined to extract the maximum of sweetness from their 
relationship. The tragic overtones are everywhere. Consci- 
ously or unconsciously, Charlie has borrowed from the heroes 
of Greek drama the tradition of the actor's apatheia, his in- 
difference to the world around him, his mockery which is 
so huge that it includes even himself, but though he can 
mock everything the boy is beyond the mocking ring which 
Charlie throws around the world. To the very end of the 
film the relationship between Charlie and the Kid sustains 
them, and for the first and last time Chaplin is immune from 
his loneliness, from the wilful rages that used to overcome 
him, and now there is nothing in the least wistful about him. 
When the boy is taken away from him, the blow falls as in 
high tragedy, suddenly, inevitably, with the force of a hor- 
rible catastrophe. 

The presence of the Kid helps us to understand the work- 
ings of the clown's mind. The clown is a creator, like the 
poet or the great tragic actor. He lives in his own world, and 
defies the world we know by virtue of his illuminations, his 
secret knowledge, his power to weave spells, his protean ca- 
pacity to assume what forms he pleases. To him whatever is 
accidental in the world belongs to logic; whatever is logical 
and expected is to be regarded with disdain. The world is 
suspect; therefore he moves in his own world, in perpetual 
conflict with our world. He moves with the terrible direct- 
ness of a child, seeing no obstacles to his progress, and like a 
child he falls over every obstacle in his path and cannot un- 
derstand why he did not see them, or why there should be 
any conflict. Partly, of course, the clown's world is that of a 
child, and therein lies the incongruity of Charlie setting up 
house with a child, for in those extraordinary sequences in 
which Charlie is seen living happily with the Kid, we are 


never certain whether we are seeing their adventures through 
the eyes of Charlie or through the eyes of the Kid. A trans- 
formation is continually occurring. As the film progresses we 
become aware that Charlie is assuming some of the expres- 
sions of the Kid, and the Kid in turn is coming more and 
more to resemble Charlie. 

Chaplin had never used a child before for anything more 
than background, and he was now playing with fire. Eisen- 
stein once suggested that the root of Chaplin's art lay in "see- 
ing things most terrible, most pitiful, most tragic through 
the eyes of a laughing child." It was partly true. Many of 
Charlie's gestures can be traced to Chaplin's childhood, the 
little skip, the way he slides round corners with one leg 
sticking out in front, the look of abandoned glee whenever 
anything amusing happens, even the magnificent sense of 
mimicry, but all these were subtly compounded into the fig- 
ure of the vagabond, who was more than child, because he 
had endured more than any child had ever endured. Chaplin 
had studied the joys of children, but he knew more of their 
griefs. He knew that children are never happy for long. He 
knew, too, that they are incapable of feeling sorry for grown- 
ups. The portrait of the Kid, eternally loving, eternally mis- 
chievous, eternally in a state of wild elation at the world 
around him was therefore an artificial portrait, and nearly 
every gesture performed by the Kid was the product of Chap- 
lin's imagination. The Kid's performance was a triumph of 
art, but it was Chaplin's art. The Kid had to be taught to 
play the part of a child. The subtleties and complications 
were therefore endless, for at moments the Kid becomes 
Charlie, becomes more like Charlie than Charlie has ever 
been, and it is as though the essence of Charlie has been ex- 
tracted and placed within the soul of the Kid. At moments 
Charlie finds himself lost in a maze of mirrors. 

Chaplin has told the story of how he first encountered the 
Kid. It happened in a hotel in Los Angeles. The boy's par- 

THE KID 187 

ents were acting in a neighboring theatre, and when Chaplin 
appeared in the hotel they wanted Jackie Coogan to greet 
him in the proper manner. The boy was unruly, and decided 
to go to sleep. He was fast asleep when Chaplin came up to 
him. When he heard Chaplin's voice he woke, rubbed his 
eyes, greeted the actor with a polished imitation of one fa- 
mous actor greeting another, and promptly went to sleep 
again. In a sense Jackie Coogan slept through the whole of 
the production of The Kid. Instead of the actor Jackie 
Coogan there was a charming sleepwalker who obeyed the 
magic impulses of his prompter. 

The magic had never been exhibited before on such a 
scale. The spells, so intricately woven, were never repeated, 
for though Chaplin could charm actresses into acting as they 
had never acted before and would never act again, his power 
over them was never so complete as his power over the Kid. 
The child became more than child, more than an ideal 
image of childhood; he was the child that everyone dreams of 
possessing. Guillaume Apollinaire has a wonderful poem re- 
lating how some clowns spread out a carpet near the statue 
of Danton in the Boulevard St Germain in the cloudless 
days before July, 1914. They performed to the music of a 
barrel-organ, their livery falling to pieces, wearing rose-col- 
ored tights, odd men who seemed to come from nowhere, 
faces covered with flour, lips painted like rosebuds. They 
parleyed with the audience, insisting that the performance 
could only begin when three whole francs were collected, but 
they were only able to gather two francs and fifty centimes. 
So they performed on that crowded little corner facing the 
church of St Germain-des-Pres. They bowed to the four 
corners of the earth according to the practice of the ancient 
Egyptian priests, and suddenly they started to juggle and lift 
up immense weights. At this point the poem almost ceases, 
for there is little left to be said, and what remains is a kind 
of prayer: 


Mais chaque spectateur cherchait en soi Venfant 

Siecle 6 siecle des nuages. 

But each spectator looked in himself for the 

miraculous child 
Century O century of clouds. 

Something of that same wonder enters into those early paint- 
ings of Picasso where we see some pitiful little boy, wearing 
dancing shoes and a cast-off suit many sizes too large for him, 
standing beside a father who gazes out of the picture alto- 
gether, lost in the dreams of his own childhood, having for- 
gotten the boy by his side; and on the pinched face of the 
clown's child there is such a look of dedication, such promise 
of miracles, that we pause, for we are ourselves that child. 
So it is in The Kid, where the magic of Charlie's love for the 
child has the effect of allowing us all to recapture our lost 
childhood, the centuries of clouds. 

One should not enquire too closely into this magic, for 
like all magic it is dangerous. The lost child may be Charlie's 
youth, for he lives in the slums of London, and the terrible 
room where Charlie lives with the Kid is modelled on the 
room in Chester Street where Chaplin lived, and the little 
alleyway where the main action takes place seems to be Ham- 
ish Street, which Chaplin knew well. It is no more than a 
turning off the Lambeth Walk, a little side-alley which gives 
the impression of leading nowhere. The film echoes with 
recollections of London, and the famous scene at the end, 
where the feathered angels float over the street and paradise 
is miraculously brought forth in a dream may owe something 
to the fact that there is a pub called "The Feathers" at the 
corner of Old Paradise Street, and Chaplin must have known 
them both. Chester Street is called Chester Way nowadays, 
and most of the churches which Chaplin saw off Lambeth 
Walk suffered from German bombs. By an odd fate, the pubs 
survived. Even today the pub called "The Feathers" and the 

THE KID 189 

street called Old Paradise remain as they were when Chaplin 
was a boy. In The Kid he recreated his own childhood in the 
light of unearthly suns, his imagination running riot among 
his memories, his gifts at their greatest. It is Chaplin's David 
Copperfield, and his Oliver Twist as well, and just as Dickens 
was forever using the streets he knew well to create charac- 
ter, as though there was some power in a street which formed 
a mind, so Chaplin's invention of the little alleyway with 
the ashcans at the corners and the old tub outside the stables 
where the boy washes in the morning belong to emotion rec- 
ollected in tranquillity. In spite of the technical faults, the 
too-quick transitions, the often senseless titles, he was now 
in full command of his medium, and he was never again to 
produce a film so tender or so close to the bone. 

The Kid came at the end of a long process of discovery. 
In a sense it was Chaplin's testament, a statement of his own 
youth and a last look at his past. It included in the flop-house 
scenes fragments borrowed from the uncompleted film Life, 
which also had the qualities of a testament. The Idle Class, 
which followed immediately afterwards, hinted at parody. 
The tramp appears again, but he no longer trails clouds of 
glory. We see him on the golf links, snoring away with a 
golf ball balanced on his mouth, and sometimes the ball is 
propelled upwards by his lusty snores. It is a moment a little 
like the moment when Hynkel dances with the balloon. Then 
another tramp comes along, disguised like Charlie, and this 
new tramp swings a club and strikes the golf ball over the 
hill, then he wanders merrily on his way. In The Idle Class 
he dreams of impossible adventures with women, takes lib- 
erties with another man's wife at a masked ball, where he is 
mistaken for her husband, and the film ends when the real 
husband arrives in a suit of mediaeval armor which has to 
be prized open with a can-opener. It is just possible that the 
suit of armor provides a kind of pun for Chaplin's own name, 
which comes from capeline and means "a mailed hood." 

Pay Day was of more consequence. It is simpler, and fol- 


lows a precise logic of its own. Spare, beautifully constructed, 
it is the best of the later shorts, the most luminous and the 
least manipulated. There is no story. It is simply an account 
of Charlie's working day from the moment when he first 
arrives at the building-lot with a flower behind his back in 
the hope of escaping the wrath of his foreman to the moment 
when he goes to sleep in the bath and in mortal fear of his 
wife. It is pay day, and Charlie discovers that he has been 
overpaid. He is enormously pleased with the discovery and 
tries to make out that even more money is due to him. As a 
brick-layer's assistant he performs feats of acrobatics on the 
staging, catches bricks faster than anyone has caught them 
before, falls in love with the foreman's daughter and by eve- 
ning he is happily drunk, singing drunken songs in the street. 
When it is time to catch a tram, he can hardly see. He stum- 
bles against a hot-dog stand, thinking it is a tramcar, and 
strap-hangs from a sausage suspended on the ceiling, and 
then, like all the other late passengers in tramcars, he opens 
his newspaper and waits till he reaches his destination. The 
artificiality of The Idle Class is wholly absent; the fierce 
winds of comedy are allowed full play. He sways on the strap, 
smiles to himself, looks round to see whether there are any 
pretty girls and then shrugs: the tramcar is empty, but what 
can you expect when it is raining? When he returns home, 
his wife is waiting for him with a rolling pin. 

That sense of a real life in which the tramp can breathe 
his native air returns in The Pilgrim. Nothing is forced; the 
people and the incidents are real, tumultuous and a little 
silly. Charlie has escaped from prison, and is thinking of re- 
turning to the comforts of prison when he espies the clothes 
of a parson who is bathing. Charlie puts them on. Why not? 
The parson is blissfully swimming. Equally blissful, Charlie 
goes to the railway station, wearing the parson's clothes. He 
nearly gives himself away when he comes to a railway station 
and wraps his hands round the ticket-seller's grill, and when 
he gets into a train, he discovers that the fat policeman be- 

THE KID 191 

side him is reading about the jail-break. He gets off at the 
next station, to find a welcome committee all ready to receive 
him. He is exquisitely polite to the welcome committee. He 
understands them. He can imitate precisely the smug gen- 
tility of their expressions. He leads them to church, carefully 
weighs the collection boxes, beams at the pretty women and 
gazes wistfully at the elderly ladies, as though he divined in 
them some remaining spark of life, and when the time comes 
to deliver a sermon he decides to amuse them by performing 
the parts of David, Goliath and all the armies looking down 
on the plain. We tend to regard this performance as panto- 
mime; it is certainly pantomime, but it is also a gay dance, 
and Goliath dances as gracefully as Charlie— the enemy is 
given the honors of the house. David, the discerning marks- 
man, has no animosity against Goliath, nor has Goliath any 
unfriendly feelings towards David. They spar as lovers spar. 
When Goliath falls at last, all one's sympathies are with him 
against the cunning street-arab who felled him. The con- 
gregation is puzzled, not only by the dance but by Charlie's 
repeated curtain-calls. 

The first scene is over. As so often in Chaplin's films, the 
curtain-raiser is a little too long and the first scene a little 
too short. The design may be deliberate. What is clear is 
that the pantomiming of David and Goliath leaves us pleas- 
antly expectant: there are another hundred Bible stories we 
would like him to pantomime. But no, he must return to 
the house of the church warden and partake of Sunday din- 
ner in the company of Edna Purviance, who had smiled at 
him while sitting at the church-organ. The sweetness which 
attended him during the sermon continues throughout the 
Sunday dinner. Charlie makes himself useful. He is already 
deeply in love with Edna, and it delights him that he will 
stay at this house. He even endures with remarkable patience 
the showing of the family album. There is a terrible moment 
when the whiskey bottle in his pocket is smashed, but he has 
known worse events, and he puts it to good use. He had 


smoked a cigarette during the church service, and then ex- 
plained that he was merely fumigating the air. But at this 
point an extraordinary thing happens: the Kid returns, this 
time as pure goat, pure principle of evil. Having experi- 
mented with the Kid as example of all that is most tender, 
joyful and divine in life, Charlie now experiments with the 
Kid as all that is most oafish, stupid and malevolent. This 
terrible child enters like a whirlwind, attaching flypaper to 
the ladies' dresses, throwing the goldfish onto the flower- 
beds, disconsolately determined upon evil. Recklessly, the 
child decides to demonstrate his power over Charlie. Charlie 
smiles benevolently, takes the boy by the hand, cajoles him, 
speaks sweetly to him, and all the while the boy's arrogance 
floods over the screen. Charlie waits till the others have left 
the room, then he administers condign punishment; he does 
what he always does when confronted with evil— he gives it 
a kick. It is a wonderful kick. All the saeva indignatio of 
which Charlie is capable enters the kick which is deftly di- 
rected into the pit of the boy's stomach. 

This is not, however, the end of the child's malevolence, 
for when Charlie is helping to portion the Christmas pud- 
ding, he discovers that a derby has been substituted for the 
pudding, and over this derby sauce and whipped cream have 
been smeared. We know the Kid did this, because when the 
derby is finally abandoned, the Kid licks off the cream with 
his tongue. He is hugely delighted with himself. Charlie 
promises that still more condign punishment will be meted 
out, but the Sunday morning calm is interrupted by the ap- 
pearance of a crook, who has known Charlie before and is 
perfectly capable of using his knowledge. Now, for the second 
time in his career, Charlie has to assume the guise of a de- 
fender of the law. The crook learns where the household 
money is kept. Charlie must keep it away from him. But 
how? Charlie himself is not sure. He eyes the crook warily. 
At night the battle is engaged. At the precise moment when 
the crook steals from his bedroom door to steal the money, 

THE KID 193 

Charlie also steals from his door. A fantastic battle occurs in 
an endless silence. Charlie must safeguard the money or lose 
his position in the church. When the crook opens the drawer, 
Charlie closes it, neatly catching the man's fingers, smiles 
apologetically, tries to reason with him, explains the dishonor 
attending upon all robbery, kneels at his feet, slips his hand 
up beside him to see whether the thief has purloined any- 
thing, threatens, begs and utters warning cries, and he does 
all this without moving his lips, in the most complete silence. 
Only the fight with Mack Swain in the Alaskan hut rivals 
this scene where the pantomime of robbery is expressed in 
the most lurid terms. Finally the crook, by setting a candle 
to Charlie's backside, succeeds in taking his enemy unawares; 
he skips to a saloon, and there Charlie catches up with him 
and gets the money back. His triumph is the triumph of in- 
nocence over adversity. He is "the parfit, gentle knight" 
whose only thought is to return to the family which offered 
him his Sunday dinner, his only desire to attend the church 
for the rest of his days and pantomime all the heroic actions 
of the Bible through a multitude of Sundays. 

In the final scene the sheriff is on his track. Charlie, an 
escaped convict posing as a parson, is known to the police. 
Edna protests. She, more than anyone, knows the innocence 
of his heart. If he has been in jail, then it can only be be- 
cause he has imitated someone who should have been sent 
to jail in his stead. The sheriff has pity on the parson. They 
are approaching the Mexican border, and so he tells Charlie 
to go and gather flowers on the other side of the frontier. 
Charlie does as he is told. He gathers the flowers and comes 
running back to the sheriff, a magnificent creature on a black 
horse. The sheriff smiles weakly, and points beyond the bor- 
der, Charlie following the direction of the pointing hand. 
"No," says Charlie, "I understand perfectly well what you 
are doing, but you cannot fool me. I am your prisoner. Do 
what you must do." The sheriff decides upon sterner meas- 
ures: he boots Charlie over the frontier. In Mexico some 


bandits suddenly start shooting. Charlie is at his wits' end. 
He waves to the sheriff, who is gradually disappearing in a 
cloud of dust. He turns over in his mind the possibility of an 
arrangement with the bandits, but their shooting is danger- 
ously accurate. The film ends with Charlie skipping and hop- 
ping along the boundary-line, prepared to jump into the 
country which offers the greatest prospect of safety, though 
he must know there is no safety anywhere. On the frontiers 
he hops and skips for an eternity. 

The Pilgrim tells on another plane and with a sweet-tem- 
pered dramatic force the same story as The Kid, without any 
of the advantages of atmosphere and without the overwhelm- 
ing sense of love. Once again Charlie is caught in the rat-trap 
and does his best to live with gallantry. He is on the side of 
the angels, but the devils afflict him, yet even the devils are 
kindly, and Charlie is exceptionally kindly. In The Pilgrim 
he is older and greyer, and knows more about the ways of 
the world, and the world in turn knows more about his pe- 
culiar proclivities. Even the sheriff respects his passion for 

With The Kid, Pay Day and The Pilgrim Chaplin is at his 
ease. The sense of strain would enter The Gold Rush and 
The Circus until in The Great Dictator the fury and the 
tension overmastered the actor. This is not to say that the 
later films were better or worse than the happy trio; it is 
simply that in these three films we are aware of an innocence 
that vanished, a gaiety that never returned. As parson, con- 
vict, bricklayer, father he showed his mettle, and in these 
roles there was no need to caricature or to go beyond the 
bounds of his experience. As gold-digger and trapeze artist 
he possesses a perfection of his own, but he is not naturally 
a gold-digger or a trapeze artist: these are things he has to 
force himself to do. He is best when force is absent, when he 
simply follows the delights of the moment. 

Of the many poems which have been written about Chap- 
lin the best is a short poem by Hart Crane written shortly 

THE KID 195 

after he had seen The Kid, which contains the following 

And yet these fine collapses are not lies 
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane; 
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise. 
We can evade you, and all else but the heart: 
What blame to us if the heart live on? 

What blame, indeed? It is the singular glory of these films 
that they were concerned with the heart, and had no other 
aim except to emphasize the heart's adventures. All are par- 
ables, but they have the advantage that they may be read to 
children, who understand them instantly: yet the complex- 
ities are everywhere. That slender figure with the look of a 
happy defiance in his eyes was well-named "the pilgrim"; his 
progress leads only from the heart to the heart, and this is 

Chapter Fourteen 

The Frozen Hills 

W hen The Gold Rush was completed after 
fourteen months of work, Chaplin declared: "This is the film 
I want to be remembered by." There is no reason why we 
should take this statement too seriously, for he had said the 
same about The Kid and he was to say it again when he com- 
pleted Monsieur Verdoux; and less than any other producer 
is he in danger of being forgotten. 

The Gold Rush is mistitled, perhaps deliberately. There 
is very little about rushing after gold. The gold-diggers in 
their long weary march through the snows, the heavy clouds 
brushing low over the earth, the eternal wastes, all these are 
things which belong to the natural habitat of the clown. He 
must go where danger is. On the edge of a precipice he is in 
his element. Before he had fought cops; now he must set 
himself against the elements, and in the frozen hills of an 
imaginary Alaska he creates his own setting. And where 
The Circus is cold, shining like the cold fire which is em- 
ployed to cut through steel below the surface of the sea, The 
Gold Rush is all warmth, blazing like the hearth-logs of our 
remembered winters. So we see him first in the freezing 
wastes, appearing belatedly after a long line of prospectors 
has passed before the camera, a small defiant ink-stain among 
the hills, twirling his cane a little to keep his spirits up. 


An announcement says the scene is the snowy Chilkoot 
Pass in the Klondike gold rush of 1898, but we know better. 
He has entered the mysterious world of snows, which chil- 
dren know: it is his own home, one of his many homes, and 
he is perfectly at ease there. He wanders along a narrow ledge. 
An enormous black bear follows him. He is not in the least 
discountenanced, pays no attention to the bear, smiles hap- 
pily, whistles a tune, and twirls his cane. When the bear dis- 
appears in a cave and is no longer dangerous, Charlie hears a 
noise of stones falling somewhere— then he jumps with fear, 
and falls the whole way down the mountain. At the bottom 
he leans on his cane, and he is a little surprised when it sinks 
to the handle. Thereupon, like any child journeying in any 
fairyland, he takes out a map and follows the arrow pointing 

We shall not understand the clown unless we remember 
that he is an adventurer. Unhappily, no one has yet been 
able to draw that absolute map of the mind where the real 
adventures take place. There are places on the map marked 
"Here are tigers" and other places marked 'ley wastes." 
"The mind has mountains, cliffs of fall," as Gerard Manley 
Hopkins has reminded us; it also has pleasant cottages and 
meadows flowing with milk and honey and odd-shaped rab- 
bit-holes, and Mount Olympus has its place there, and some- 
where in the east upon the sunset is Kafka's gilded castle. It 
is the function of the clown to hurl himself at the most dan- 
gerous places, if only to show that there is no danger there. 
So he will dither on the highest trapezes and cock snooks at 
the most muscular cops. As for his method of journeying, 
Giles Earle has expressed it well enough in an Elizabethan 
song called Tom o' Bedlam: 

With a heart of furious fancies 
Whereof I am commander. 

With a burning spear 

And a horse of air 
To the wilderness I wander. 


By a knight of ghosts and shadows 
I summoned am to tourney 

Ten leagues beyond 

The wild world's end: 
Methinks it is no journey. 

Charlie is of the same opinion. Having come "ten leagues 
beyond the wild world's end," he is in territory he knows 
well, and clearly he thinks it is no journey. Why, then, should 
he fear such little things as bears? 

The journey up the pass is the curtain-raiser. There follows 
the real terror, the terror at the heart of terror. Charlie makes 
no bones about it. It is ridiculous to fear bears; as for men- 
fear them always when they are freezing cold, when they are 
miserable, whenever they are not laughing. The scene in the 
hut, where Charlie, Big Jim McKay and Black Larsen hud- 
dle against the storm is terrifying. It is the world of delirium 
and nausea, the lurid dreams of men in doss-houses, the evil 
in the heart and the knife gleaming in the unsteady hand, 
exhaustion and near-murder on the edge of nowhere, storms 
and the creeping cold and no escape anywhere, and this world 
of pure delirium is transformed into one which is lit with a 
magical tenderness. The terror, however, remains. It is there 
in the background, always ready to spring out. The hut be- 
longs to Black Larsen. Charlie is blown in, and then Big 
Jim is blown in, and Larsen wants nothing more than to be 
rid of the two interlopers, and since Larsen has a gun the two 
together must put an end to him. When Larsen is subdued, 
Big Jim goes mad. Charlie treats him gently, throws an arm 
round him, offers him a bone and gazes at him with all the 
sweetness of a child, or like a puppy prepared to play with 
the first stranger who comes along though its master lies dead. 

Charlie's behavior during the storm is something to won- 
der at. The worse the storm, the more terrible the conse- 
quences, the gayer he becomes. Charlie attempts to make 
them laugh, smiles eagerly, salts a candle and offers it to them 


as though it were a celery-stalk, and shrugs his shoulders 
against the storm. A dog has wandered in and taken up its 
place in the next room. They are all hungry, nervously eyeing 
one another, and when Big Jim goes to the room where the 
dog is and then returns picking his teeth, Charlie has good 
reasons for thinking the worst has happened. They decide to 
cut cards and decide who shall go out foraging. The choice 
falls on Larsen, who ambushes two mounted police and wan- 
ders out into the wilds on their sled. Larsen has no part in 
the story. He is a deus ex machina, and not a very convinc- 
ing one. But Big Jim, a huge bear of a man, resembling a 
cross between a bear and Jupiter Tonans, is the perfect foil 
for Charlie, shaggy where Charlie is still the dandy, bluster- 
ing where Charlie is rapier-sharp; one is an elemental force, 
and the other is the human comedy. 

While the storm increases in violence, so does their hun- 
ger. They are so hungry that Charlie decides to cook one of 
his shoes, those enormous shoes which have always resembled 
sausages. He cooks it expertly, places it on a dish, pours some 
of the gravy over it, holds his finger to his nose, sharpens a 
knife, separates the uppers from the sole, and then with a 
fleeting smile of satisfaction offers Big Jim the sole, only to 
have his offer rejected. Big Jim settles for the uppers. Charlie 
is perfectly content with the sole, sucks the nails and the laces, 
and finding a nail shaped like a wishbone offers to break it 
with Big Jim. When we see Charlie again he is out on a 
foraging expedition and both his feet are wrapped in rags. 
Another shoe is cooking. Empty-handed, Charlie returns to 
the hut and prepares dinner. In the middle of the dinner Big 
Jim goes hideously mad, and imagines that Charlie is a 
plump chicken. 

Then the nightmare begins. Nothing like this nightmare 
was ever to occur to Charlie again; nothing like it had ever 
happened before. Big Jim is out to murder. He will take the 
neck of the chicken, lay it on the table and cut off the pro- 
testing head, and Charlie looks at him with immense sadness 


and pity, almost prepared to offer himself as a sacrifice. They 
chase each other round the room, and suddenly Charlie be- 
comes the chicken, and the frightened chicken is standing on 
the table: all Mack Swain has to do is to wring its neck. But 
Charlie escapes his fate by the use of a transformation scene: 
he changes from a chicken back to a man again, and Mack 
Swain is sufficiently aware of the change to pause for a mo- 
ment—no more than a moment. When he looks for the 
chicken again, it is fluttering in panic round the room. Mack 
Swain chases it round the room and out into the snowfields, 
seizes a gun, fires at it, and we see the flapping wings, but sud- 
denly they are Charlie's arms. The scene is played with an 
unrelenting effect of tragedy, Mack Swain becoming Meph- 
istopheles with a spurt of powder and a column of blue 
flame. The sense of real panic emerges, and it is still there 
the next morning when we see them in bed, shuddering 
against the storm. Charlie has taken the inevitable precau- 
tion: his hands, not his feet, are inside his shoes— a trick he 
had played successfully in Triple Trouble. He hopes Mack 
Swain will not see that he is prepared to run. Unfortunately 
Mack Swain resembles nothing so much as Dickens' Mr. 
Bunsby who appeared over the bulkhead of the cabin "with 
one stationary eye on the mahogany face, and one revolving 
one, on the principle of some light-houses." Mack Swain sees 
everything. There is another fight, as tense and malevolent 
as the fights the previous night, and Charlie would have been 
smothered under blankets if a bear had not taken it into its 
head to enter the cabin at that moment. The bear is not al- 
together convincing. It has an extraordinary resemblance to 
Mack Swain, just as the plump chicken bore an extraordinary 
resemblance to Charlie in his padded clothes. But Charlie is 
not plucked and dressed for a giant's dinner. Mack Swain 
shoots the bear, and we see Charlie sharpening the knives. 

The subplot concerns Larsen, and it is wholly mismanaged 
and unconvincing. We have odd glimpses of Larsen working 
his claim, and Big Jim goes to join him. They fight together, 


and we are not quite sure what has happened to them, for 
they are left casually in the snow. It does not matter. We are 
concerned with Charlie, who wanders off to the boom town 
and falls in love with Georgia Hale, a cabaret singer who has 
only to smile for Charlie to be lifted up to the highest heaven, 
but in fact she is not smiling at Charlie, she is smiling at 
someone behind him, and though this trick has been used 
before, notably in The Cure, the use of it in The Gold Rush 
has a sharpness which was not apparent before; and Charlie's 
pain when he discovers she is not smiling at him is unbear- 
ably painful to watch. Charlie wanders off to the bar and 
drinks disconsolately by himself, and never had he appeared 
so lonely as in the obscure shack in Alaska. The loneliness 
vanishes only when, gazing out from his little cabin, he sees 
Georgia playing with snowballs, and by good fortune one of 
her snowballs hits him smack in the face. He invites her into 
his cabin with her companions, two other girls of a weird 
dowdiness. While Charlie goes in search of firewood, Georgia 
sees that a discarded photograph lies under Charlie's pillow. 
It is her own photograph, one that had been torn and later 
patched together after a barroom brawl. For the first time 
she becomes aware of Charlie as a person, and when he in- 
vites her to enjoy a New Year's dinner with her companions 
in his own shack, she smiles winningly, and Charlie is con- 
vinced that she will come. 

The preparations for her coming are among those hand- 
some gifts which Charlie has given to the world. There is not 
a moment of those delighted preparations which is not mem- 
orable. He tears a newspaper cunningly into a resemblance 
of a lace tablecloth. He carefully arranges the knives and 
forks, touching them gently and with love as he places them 
on the table which is forever in danger of collapsing. He 
writes out place-cards, sweeps the dust from the chairs, stud- 
ies with mounting excitement the cooking of the chicken on 
the stove, but once more the chicken is himself, and there 
are no guests except a nanny goat which comes to munch the 


paper favors. What then? He will pretend they are late or 
unavoidably detained elsewhere. He is sure they will come. 
Have they not promised to come? He smiles wearily, heart- 
broken, but breaks out into smiles as he imagines them ac- 
tually present, and suddenly to his intense joy they are 
present, and Charlie is bowing to them, and they sit beside 
the table as they would sit at the table of a King. To amuse 
them Charlie dances his wonderful breadroll dance, which 
is no more than the cavortings of two breadrolls on a pair of 
forks; but just as the chicken represented only too clearly 
Charlie himself, so the breadrolls exactly resemble two bleed- 
ing hearts dancing to keep their courage up. The breadrolls 
dance the cancan, hop sideways, pause magnificently before 
continuing the dance to the applause of the girls, and at the 
end they take their bows. It was the first time that bleeding 
hearts had ever bowed to an audience, and Charlie celebrated 
the occasion by performing with astonishing verve and bril- 
liance. But at last the hearts lie dead upon the table, and 
Charlie wanders away, leaving the uninhabited room where 
the girls were present only in his dreams. He wanders among 
the dark huts, sick with loss and misery, and very timidly he 
approaches the lighted window where the girls are dancing 
and there is a furious air of festivity. 

As he gazes through the window, Charlie is like someone 
looking at an unattainable paradise in a dream. Inside the 
dancehall an unearthly mystery is being performed. He is like 
a child watching a gas-illuminated pantomime. There are 
shadowy grottoes and mermaids' crowns, and strange dis- 
torted shapes like fishes, and everywhere there is the sound 
of joy. The mysteriously diffused light in which he sees the 
celebrants, the sudden appearance of Georgia dancing there, 
the memory of the dancing breadrolls, all these fuse together 
to make a picture of misery seen in the light of an unbearable 
tenderness. His misery now is a child's misery, the misery of 
rejection. He wanders abroad in the dark, and while he is 
wandering Georgia remembers her promise to come to him, 


and when she comes to his shack, he is gone. This is the end 
for the time being of Charlie's hopeless love for Georgia. 
The bloody hearts had been torn out of the living flesh, and 
in the abandonment of sorrow he goes on his way— to the 
shack where he had fought so menacingly with Big Jim. 

That shack on the world's edge takes the place of the ash- 
can; it is Charlie's natural habitation. Big Jim has amassed 
some gold; there is no longer a haunting terror of starvation, 
but there are things worse than starvation. A storm comes 
and hurls the shack half over an abyss, and as they sleep 
there, they are wholly unaware of danger. Frost covers the 
windows, the stove still burns, only they are appalled to dis- 
cover that they have lost their sense of balance. When Charlie 
gets out of bed, the whole shack tilts. Why? There is no ex- 
planation except the hopeful one which Charlie brings for- 
ward. Perhaps it is their stomachs tilting; it is impossible that 
the shack should tilt. The icicles grow down from the ceiling. 
Charlie melts them for his breakfast. Still the shack tilts, and 
we see from a camera mysteriously placed outside that it is 
hanging to the cliff by a single thread, a single rope. Charlie 
makes light of the matter. "So you think the floor is tipping? 
Well, perhaps it is, and what about it? Floors do tip, don't 
they?" Mack Swain agrees that they tip, but it is not reason- 
able that they should tip so much. Charlie goes blithely to 
the door. From the door all he can see is the eternal plain of 
virgin snow below; in front of them there is only air. 

At this point Chaplin revives some of the tricks which were 
employed by D. W. Griffith. The shack is supported on a rope 
which is about to break, and they must escape before it 
breaks. Everything now happens in slow motion. Impossible 
that they should survive. We see the shack leaning tipsily over 
the abyss, we see the rope breaking, we see Charlie and Mack 
Swain, their faces agonised, their eyebrows white with snow, 
not daring to cough for fear the cough will rock them off 
their moorings, not daring to speak, trying to make their 
way through the door which swings back against them, and 


all the time they are only half-aware of their danger, because 
they refuse to believe they could ever have entered such a 
predicament. The excitement is breathless and continual; 
and if it smacks of corn, this is perhaps because all excite- 
ment smacks of corn. It is a race against time, like the race to 
free the innocent man from the gallows in Intolerance. In 
the end they crawl up a slope on their bellies at an angle of 
sixty degrees, and this perhaps is where the film should end. 
The concluding scene, as it was shown, lacks verisimilitude. 
Charlie and Mack Swain have discovered Larsen's gold, and 
now they are returning to America as fur-coated millionaires. 
On the same ship is Georgia, but she is in the steerage. A 
sudden lurch and Charlie finds himself tumbling off the 
promenade deck into the coils of rope in the steerage, and 
there is Georgia beside him. It is a pity. One wishes devoutly 
she was a million miles away. The film ends with a wholly 
irrational Charlie embracing a wholly incredible Georgia. 
Evidently, the orphans of the storm have found one another 
at last. 

The Gold Rush has only one imperfection, and that is its 
ending. For the rest the world which Chaplin conjured out of 
the snows is terrifyingly real. The very simplicity of the snow 
scenes gives dimension to Charlie. Charlie, that thin black 
isosceles triangle hopping across the snows, partakes of geom- 
etry; the pattern he forms against the snow has the inevitabil- 
ity of Euclidian theory. There is the round face of Georgia, 
the square of the shack, the immense black V-shaped wedge 
of Mack Swain— out of these simplicities the film is con- 
structed. It is comedy reduced to its geometric essentials, and 
the breadrolls can be interpreted as bleeding hearts or zeros 
as we please. To have placed the wildest comedy against the 
snowfields was a mark of genius, for in the field of the cinema 
this was the equivalent of playing out a comedy on the stage 
without props, and with only a single white sheet as a back- 
cloth. This is comedy naked, and set in the white fields of 


That there is a geometry to comedy Chaplin proved in 
The Gold Rush. It is not so certain that there is a correspond- 
ing algebra, though one day in Paris Chaplin attempted to 
explain the algebra of comedy to his friend Cami. At the 
time they were trapped in an elevator, and Cami's account 
of the algebra may have been subtly affected by the experi- 
ence of being trapped with Chaplin. As Cami explained 
Chaplin's theory, it went like this: 

Let X be the laughter you are attempting to raise, and 
Y be the means at your disposal. Then: 

100 = X + Y 
20 = X - Y 

By addition we obtain: 

100 + 20 = X + Y + X- Y 

Now represent the derby by D, 
the mustache by M, 
the boots by B, 

the facial expression by F. 

Then it follows immediately: 

D + M= B + F + Y 


a + b = 2X 

a + Y =a+D + M + B + Y 

X = 40 

a + b = 80. Q.E.D. * 

Such were the conclusions of Chaplin's algebra. They are 
no worse than the conclusions which Karl Marx reached in 
his study of the differential calculus, ## and the magnificent 

* La Passion de Charlie Chaplin, by Edouard Raymond, Paris, 1929, p. 107. 
** On Karl Marx's knowledge of the differential calculus, see Edmund Wil- 
son, To the Finland Station, Appendix B. 


irrelevance of a -f b = 2X should commend itself to mathe- 

The miracle of The Gold Rush lay in Charlie's power to 
extract the last ounce of comedy from the endless spaces of 
the earth. It is related of Deburau that he preferred a dark 
background to set off his white clothes. Charlie, the aimless 
and happy black ink-spot, was performing against the same 
odds, but at a greater disadvantage, for the dark backcloth 
of the Funambules Theatre could be peopled with imag- 
inary houses, streets, taverns, anything one pleased. In the 
snows there was no life, only the bleak horrors of endless 
space. It was as though Charlie had dared to perform on the 
heights where space and time vanish, in the loneliness of the 
highest trapeze of all. 

Chapter Fifteen 

Trapeze Act 

i3 ooner or later it was inevitable that Charlie 
should join a circus. Those pale-faced clowns who wander 
round the ring with putty noses and disconsolate expressions, 
dressed in a jester's panoply or in rags, their noses lighting 
up as they try to distract the attention of the audience from 
the daring acrobats on the high trapeze were after all his 
brothers. Chaplin in his youth had been something of a tra- 
peze artist, until a fall cured him of a desire to join the circus. 
Charlie must therefore accomplish what Chaplin had failed 
to accomplish; and leaving the frozen hills of Alaska, he 
would warm himself in the glow of the sawdust ring. The 
Circus, which appeared in January 1928, two and a half years 
after the showing of The Gold Rush, belongs to the long list 
of Chaplin's classical films which includes Shoulder Arms, 
The Kid, The Pilgrim, The Gold Rush, City Lights and 
Monsieur Verdoux. It is one of the great seven, and the cold- 
est of them all. 

Why the film should be so coldly calculated, so elaborately 
chilling, is not difficult to explain. The story was built around 
Charlie as a trapeze artist or tightrope walker, substituting 
for the real acrobat. The climax was to be Charlie's dauntless 
behavior when faced with an impossible feat of daring. But 
it is after all the clown who performs the most impossible 



feats in the circus ring. Simply by daring to exist the clown 
shows more daring than any trapeze artist. He is the immor- 
tal who comes to us out of death, bearing a burden of ghostly 
memories, the possessor of a mechanical neon-lit heart and 
a nose on which the graveyard earth still clings. He is all we 
have left in the modern world of the deathless delight-mak- 
ers, and as he seeks to turn our attention from the bare legs 
of the girls and the silken horses, he is merely insisting on 
his right to proclaim his own immortality. So it was with 
Charlie from the beginning, and when he appears as a clown, 
with Deburau's nonchalance, we can believe him, but as a 
trapeze artist in a morning coat he is past belief. 

The Circus, in spite of the chill running through it, is the 
most homogeneous and the most deftly constructed of all 
Chaplin's films. It obeys the classic unities. It tells a single 
story in a single place at a single time. All that happens is 
that Charlie joins a circus by the purest accident, stays long 
enough to turn it upside down and to ensure the happy mar- 
riage of the little dancer, and then the circus moves on, with 
Charlie left behind in the bleak glare of a spring morning. 
There is no plot, for there never has been a plot. There is 
only a succession of fast-moving incidents and a number of 
themes subtly interwoven, compounded, torn apart, held up 
for our enjoyment or our mockery, and then forgotten, for 
other, more urgent themes immediately take their place. It 
is a trapeze act as a conjuror might play it. The rabbits dis- 
appear, the monkeys and the lions come from nowhere, the 
conjuror's patter continually misleads, his sharp baleful eye 
watching every movement we make. "No, gentlemen, the 
silk handkerchiefs are not in the top-hat. They are in your 
nose." So he milks the nose of its handkerchiefs, and the next 
moment he is performing another trick altogether. But all 
the time, more magical than any of his tricks, is the conjuror's 
baleful glare, his studied insolence, his look of unabashed 
triumph when the trick succeeds beyond his expectations. 

The Circus is the only Chaplin film where the setting is 


wholly credible. We never quite believe in the little alleyway 
where the Kid lives under a leaking roof. Adenoid Hynkel's 
palace exists in defiance of reason, and against all the evi- 
dence. Monsieur Verdoux lives incomprehensibly on a studio 
set. As for the frozen hills of The Gold Rush, we know ex- 
actly when Charlie is wandering in the icy wastes of Nevada 
and when he is comporting himself at the studio in La Brea 
Avenue. In City Lights the Embankment is real enough, but 
the courtyard where the blind flower-seller lives is evidently 
a stage property and so is the street where Charlie sees the 
adorable nude in the window. The boxing ring is real, but 
the dressing-room belongs to fiction. The millionaire's house 
is real enough, but what shall we say of the courtyard where 
Charlie is pursued by the wolf-hounds, that courtyard where 
you can almost see the electricians at work. The strange and 
beautiful thing is that this weaving of fantastically unreal 
settings with settings we are only too likely to regard as real, 
made of the stuff of the world we know, is exactly right. We 
do not demand naturalistic drama from Charlie. We demand 
an imaginative coherence between the world of reality and 
fantasy, and the oddly designed backdrops of all the Chaplin 
films only add to the necessary illusion. In that insubstantial 
world we are bewildered and excited and delighted beyond 
measure, as Charlie is, by the strange oncoming forms of 
things. In something of the same way a man will watch with 
horror and trepidation and delight the face of a girl coming 
across a room, while the room vanishes. 

The setting of The Circus is a completely valid setting. 
But a circus in a film has its own dangers. In a circus any- 
thing may happen. We expect the unusual. We would be 
astonished if anything so simple as an ordinary trapeze act 
took place. We must have a mounting excitement, with the 
unexpected hurrying in from all directions. Charlie, the 
genius of the unexpected response, is therefore at a disadvan- 
tage. When he hurries after a hen and gathers the egg for 
his breakfast, we are not particularly surprised; if a living 


dinosaur came round the edge of the tent and dropped an 
egg in his lap, we would be delighted. We might ponder a 
little if an elephant dropped an egg, but we could adjust 
ourselves to the elephant's egg without too much difficulty. 
All through The Circus Charlie is faced with the possibility 
that his own magical powers are likely to be equalled by the 
powers of the animals in the menagerie or even by the circus 
artists. Indeed, when Charlie is faced with the tightrope 
walker, Rex, the incarnation of all successful lovers and ad- 
venturers, immaculate in evening dress, Charlie must split 
himself in two, and one self rises to throw Rex to the floor 
while the other broods in the corner. In the old days Charlie 
would have cocked a snook at him, tricked him into reveal- 
ing his inadequacies, shown him that he was not the King, 
only an incompetent performer like the rest of us. To create 
a balance between the magical forces controlled by Charlie 
and the magical forces of the circus, Chaplin is forced to 
compromise. So the lion is a sleepy lion with no taste for 
human flesh, the clowns are incompetent and the ringmaster 
is a character out of stock, a bully who thinks nothing of 
whipping the beautiful dancer. 

Yet the film is a masterpiece, chock-full of grotesque in- 
genuities, happy inventions and clear, sharp images. There 
is no lull. The pathos has become conscious and deliberate, 
the actor is sometimes lost in his mannerisms, and sometimes 
Charlie looks as though he was tired of the whole weary 
weight of the world— only when he stumbles onto the forbid- 
den button and lets loose the birds, rabbits, pigs, geese and 
balloons does the face light up with supreme pleasure. For 
the rest there is all the pain of clowning, the long shadows, 
the knowledge that even when he has performed admira- 
bly, the circus will leave him behind. Then, instead of the 
little leap up to happiness, the sudden blowing on the flame, 
the tip of a hat, the waving of a cane, there will be only a 
doll-like fixedness of expression while the shadows lengthen. 
It is the sadness of Deburau, the sadness which springs from 


the knowledge of the world's impermanence, and the bitter 
relish that it should be so. 

The Circus begins with a star, a great silver star which 
adorns a circus hoop, and this is as it should be, since the 
stars have a peculiarly beneficent influence on circuses and 
cinema actors alike. We shall see the star again at the very 
end of the film, when a dejected Charlie on a discarded box 
crumples up a star on a piece of tissue paper and kicks it 
away with his heel. This, too, is as it should be. We expect 
that a comedy should be rounded off, and Charlie's comedies 
are only too rarely rounded off. We tolerate these improvisa- 
tions along a nerve because there never was such a crackle 
of fireworks to hold our attention, but we are not often al- 
lowed the grace of a beginning, a middle and an end. And 
as we sit down to enjoy The Circus, the very shape of the 
star on the hoop gives us a hint that the drama will follow 
an orderly path, obedient to the heavenly dictates of dra- 
matic law. And this is what happens. From the moment when 
the bareback rider plunges through the hoop to the moment 
when Charlie is left behind in the morning dust, we are 
aware as in music of an endless delicate weaving of emotions 
and images, and if there is a glint of frost in them, so it is 
sometimes in the fugues of Bach, and we have no reason to 

As always, there is the curtain-raiser. It is a little scene, 
very taut and sharp, and half of it is caricature. Merna Ken- 
nedy is a little equestrienne who fails to dive through the 
hoop. The ringmaster flicks his whip and curses her. The 
circus is half failing. The acts are failing. He will see to it 
that she has no food tonight. The threat of the whip hangs 
over all the scenes which follow. 

When we first see Charlie, he is the old familiar bewildered 
tramp who has come from nowhere. He is wandering through 
the galleries of the fun-fair. He mooches along, hungry and 
poverty-stricken as always. A pickpocket drops a watch and 
a billfold in Charlie's pocket, intending to retrieve it later. 


Charlie walks on. He knows nothing about the sudden wealth 
which has fallen to him. He goes to a hot-dog stand, hoping 
against hope he will be able to steal a frankfurter, and when 
he sees a child on its father's shoulder happily munching a 
hot-dog, a gleam comes to his eyes. He tickles the child. He 
crows at it. Surreptitiously, he leans over the counter and 
ladles mustard on the hot-dog and takes a bite. The child 
laughs with pleasure. 

A little later the owner of the watch sees the chain dangling 
from Charlie's pocket. The chase is on. The tramp plunges 
into a mirror maze, where he is blissfully in his element: a 
hundred Charlies converge upon him, and he tips his hat to 
them all. The police are in full pursuit. The "rally" of the 
Keystone cops is on. Charlie escapes from the maze and 
freezes into immobility, disguised as one of the specimens of 
Noah's Ark: a hint, though we have received many hints, 
that Charlie is at home in the world before the Flood. Recog- 
nised, he is chased into a circus, and at this point the film is 
at once wildly improbable, beautifully constructed and in- 
evitable, for having found himself in the circus while the 
magician is attempting to make the lady vanish, Charlie, like 
a jack-in-the-box, pops up in the place where the lady should 
have been. The police see him and give chase. They are all 
over the ring, and Charlie is in and out of the trapdoor. 
When at last the Vanishing Lady appears, Charlie is nowhere 
to be seen. 

All this is played with a kind of breathless prodigality, 
close to farce. It is Charlie's scene, and he is wonderfully ex- 
cited to be in the circus, where the risks are infinitely less 
than in Alaska. He knows he can make people laugh. He 
knows, too, that he is better than the clowns in the ring. He 
is therefore not unduly surprised when the audience roars 
for him, and he accepts with good grace the ringmaster's 
offer that he should perform in a tryout the next morning. 

The tryout is an exercise in skill. Everything that Charlie 
has ever learnt is put to the service of the exhibition of skill 


which occurs during the next scene. The comedy is boisterous 
and English; it is the kind of thing that Grimaldi performed 
to perfection. It is grotesquely silly rather than funny, but 
the silliness acquires such extraordinary resonance that the 
scene escapes from farce. The tryout takes the form of two 
different acts, neither amusing in itself; the amusement arises 
from the fact that Charlie is there, imitating bad clowns so 
perfectly that his mimicry endows the scene with unexpected 
passion. The first act consists of repeated efforts to shoot an 
apple off the head of one of the clowns. Charlie bites the ap- 
ple until almost none is left. All that we see is a little stump 
of an apple riddled with worms— Charlie has indicated the 
existence of the worms by wriggling his little finger— and 
when the apple has reached vanishing-point, Charlie substi- 
tutes a banana. That is all. There is nothing to it. Anyone 
could do it, and no doubt many have done it. But, like Beck- 
mann, Charlie performs with the wildest of impromptu ges- 
tures, and no Paris gazing at the apple of his choice has ever 
done with an apple what Charlie does in this scene. Every bite 
is excruciating delight and agony to the onlooker. He bites 
the apple with malevolence. The apple is alive. He must bite, 
but he can never explain the overriding necessity. The poor 
apple vanishes, and we are sorry, as we are sorry when we 
hear of a disaster in some remote part of the world, and when 
he substitutes the banana there is such a gleam of innocent 
triumph in his eyes that we are compelled to cheer him, as 
though he had won a great victory over the enemy. Perhaps 
the secret of this fabulous exhibition of skill lies in the vast 
significance he somehow attaches to his smallest acts: he bites 
an apple with the deliberation of an Alexander carving up 
the Persian Empire. The William Tell scene is followed by 
a barber-shop scene. Charlie is in his element. The barber- 
shop has been since Roman times the scene of razor-edge 
comedy, and Charlie was always happy with a lather-brush. 
He succeeds in lathering everything in sight, including the 


ringmaster, and for this act of effrontery he is thrown out 
of the circus. 

In revenge, he decides to take over the circus as his own. 
He does this cautiously, and only after he has first experi- 
mented with the comic possibilities of a circus. He examines 
the goldfish, wipes them, throws them back, and concludes 
that the comic possibilities latent in goldfish are negligible. 
He goes on to examine all the animals which the magician 
possesses— the rabbits and the squeaking pigs which vanish 
under the magician's hat. He examines them so carefully 
that they escape all over the circus grounds. He is now the- 
oretically the prop man's assistant. Told by the ringmaster 
to give a pill to a horse, he puts the tube in the horse's mouth 
and is about to blow, when the horse blows first. There are 
satisfactions in this slow approach to greatness. From goldfish 
he comes to lions. An unfriendly donkey which has been the 
bane of his life throughout his brief stay in the circus— the 
same donkey penetrated his shack in The Gold Rush— takes 
an intense dislike to him and chases him into the lion's cage. 
The lock snaps shut. The beautiful bareback rider sees him 
and faints. Charlie casually tosses the lion's drinking water 
through the bars to revive her. The lion is still asleep, but 
it is no less dangerous because it is sleeping. Charlie is panic- 
stricken. He dare not make a sound. He gazes fondly at the 
girl and bids her farewell, and then at the lion— but the lion 
is yawning now, and soon it goes up to Charlie and sniffs 
him. At this moment the girl revives sufficiently to unlatch 
the gate of the cage. Charlie saunters out, disposed to play 
the part of the conqueror, smiling down from the heights of 
his self-satisfaction, whereupon the lion roars and rushes at 
Charlie, who goes running up a high pole. His ascent of the 
pole, so quick and yet so rhythmical, so effortless and at the 
same time so preposterously well-timed, provides a warning 
of acrobatic feats to come. Gazing down from his high perch, 
absurd, fearful, utterly ashamed of himself, he sees the girl, 


and suddenly there appears on his face the familiar mask of 
a love which is beyond love, so tender and childlike it is. 

Charlie's love for Merna Kennedy is hopeless from the be- 
ginning. It is the tradition that the equestrienne must be 
loved, though she will never give her love in return. In a 
sense, Merna Kennedy is playing the part of Miss Louisa 
Woolford, who was born in the year before Waterloo and 
survived long into the Boer War. Miss Woolford— there were 
few who dared mention her Christian name— was formed 
from an assembly of stalactites. She was part of the English 
scene, and regarded with awe and delight, the same kind of 
awe and delight with which we regard stalactites. She pos- 
sessed the most delicate milk-white hands in Christendom, 
and her appearance as she rode round the circus ring at Ast- 
ley's was greeted with an immense sigh of recognition fol- 
lowed by a prolonged sigh of misery, for everyone knew she 
was impermanent and would never be possessed by mortal 
man. Both Dickens and Thackeray drooled when they saw 
her, for had she not been Columbine in the pantomime? and 
had anyone more beautiful ever existed? Standing on her 
white horse, her yellow hair streaming in the wind, she 
looked as though she had only to whisper an order for the 
whole tent to be transported to paradise. She lived to be 
eighty-six, and it was only after her death that men came 
to know that she hated circus-riding and wanted nothing 
so much as a respectable suburban existence in Bayswater. 

In Merna Kennedy, Charlie has another Miss Woolford to 
contend with. She is ethereal, sweet-tempered, possessing a 
melting smile, with shapely legs and small feet, but her heart 
is not for Charlie. She has been to the fortuneteller, and in 
the crystal ball there has been revealed to her the dark, hand- 
some man of her dreams. Charlie is dark; he is not hand- 
some. When Rex, the tightrope walker, appears as a new 
attraction in the circus, Charlie is crestfallen. He, too, knows 
about the visit to the fortuneteller. He can only rage with 
himself, or, imagining himself a knight in armor capable of 


destroying Rex with a single blow, launch out on his endless 
dreams. He hopes Rex will die an excruciating death in a 
fall from the tightrope, and then his mind runs on to the in- 
evitable time when he will be the tightrope walker, and 
Merna will be his wife. He practices tightrope walking in 
secret. One day Rex is absent. Charlie's opportunity has ar- 
rived. Wearing Rex's immaculate uniform he decides to 
show his utmost daring. The tightrope is stretched high up 
near the roof of the tent. Invisible to the audience is the rope 
round his waist. He therefore feels sure of himself, too sure, 
for the invisible rope on which he had depended inexplic- 
ably leaves him, and he is left alone with the long bamboo 
cane teetering on the edge of nothingness, and suddenly a 
plague of monkeys comes to torment him further, biting his 
nose, crawling all over his face and tearing at his clothes. 
Trouserless, he sways from side to side with monkeys on each 
shoulder; trouserless, he falls. By some miracle he survives, 
though he has fallen clean through the tent into the street 
outside. He comes running into the tent to take his bows. 

In the end he is left alone with his misery and his heart- 
ache. Merna marries Rex, and Charlie himself superintends 
their wedding. They are no more than del ex machina, god- 
like creatures who feed his appetite for glory, and he knows 
their marriage will be as miserable as the marriage between 
Miss Woolford and Alexander Ducrow, that strange and im- 
penitent genius of the theatre who enlarged on glory and 
stretched it to its widest bounds with his immense phantas- 
magorias, his dewy curtains and fiery backdrops on which 
the hanging gardens of Babylon were painted and panoramas 
of all the Americas. Ducrow is forgotten now, but in his time 
he set a style for glory. Poverty-stricken as a child, he made 
out of his wildest dreams a living pantomime of the utmost 
splendor, for he would parade across the stage on horseback 
in the armor of Achilles, and then by some trick of the light 
he would emerge a second later in the guise of Genghiz 
Khan, and having paraded again across the stage he would 


appear as Antony in Egypt, and again as Pizarro in the Tem- 
ple of the Sun, and still later as Henry pacing the Cloth of 
Gold. He had only to be on the stage for maidens to vow 
perpetual virginity, since no hero so beautiful as Ducrow 
was ever likely to rest in their arms. No man before or since 
has ever shone with such peacock feathers; he wore the rai- 
ment of Emperors as though born to it. He burned himself 
out by the age of fifty, a foul-mouthed bully and a charlatan 
who possessed the gift of pantomiming heroes. He knew how 
Alexander would raise a little finger and silence all the sol- 
diers of the Macedonian Army. He was Napoleon on the 
Bellerophon, Caesar raging across Gaul, Washington at Val- 
ley Forge, and perhaps it was inevitable that he should have 
been a drunkard and a fool. Miss Woolford married a shop- 
keeper when he died. 

Ducrow posing as the conqueror who never lived in mortal 
danger belongs to all men's dreams. Charlie was of sterner 
stuff; even in the circus he saw the world as it is. 

Chapter Sixteen 

The Dark City,Thirty Years Later 

VV hen Chaplin composed the scenario for 
City Lights he was faced with problems which had never 
entered his mind before. With the coming of sound the art 
of pantomime, which he had explored at length, in public 
and in private, received its greatest challenge. Everything in 
the early films had conspired to give depth and reality to the 
portrait of Charlie: the very jerkiness of the film, the out- 
rageous simplifications of the cardboard settings, even the 
bad lighting and the inexpert lenses and the only too visible 
chalk-marks which showed the actors how far they must stay 
away from the camera helped to make the illusion of a real, 
living and breathing character moving through a real, living 
and breathing world of exuberant and harassed people. 
Out of the imperfections of the cinema he built perfection. 
"That light which brings a Garbo alive, in which a Chap- 
lin cannot survive" was not yet invented. It was the time be- 
fore the veils of mist and the silken spotlights and the absurd 
love scenes played against hazy photographs of the Bay of 
Naples. It was the time when we sat on hard chairs and the 
local music-teacher thumped on an out-of-tune piano, too 
short-sighted to see the film, so that she played a waltz during 
the battle-scenes and scraps from the Fifth Symphony when 
the lovers were in each other's arms, but no one listened to 


the music and no one cared, for there, hugely in command 
of himself, was the insolent tramp walking down the empty 
roads, swinging his cane in the shadow of the eucalyptus 
trees. He looked a little like a bottle to be uncorked, a nec- 
romancer's box of magic tricks, a clown on holiday. He was 
all things, but he was never a fool. He was dumb, but he 
spoke often. There was a roughness about him which we 
recognised in our own lives. He was full of character, and 
he had only to lift his eyebrows for us to detect a wealth of 
meaning in his eyes. He was as silent as a dream, and of all 
the myriad things which conspired to give depth, dimension 
and beauty to this strange interloper silence was the greatest, 
for since he was silent we could read anything we pleased in 
his gestures and in his voiceless words, and we heard every 
word he ever uttered. 

With the coming of sound Chaplin was faced with a di- 
lemma which he has not yet completely mastered. The mime 
is silent, and he is most expressive when he is silent. The 
dancer echoes the music, and is created out of the music, but 
music can only echo the mime. The mime creates his own 
rhythms; the dancer is created out of the rhythms of others. 
The mime demands silence, because silence connives at the 
mystery, because silence contains the most delicate sounds, 
whole octaves of sound. When Charlie turns to gaze with 
wonderful nonchalance at the cop he has tripped up and 
who lies sprawling in the gutter, we hear his mocking laugh- 
ter without benefit of sound-track, and we hear it more ac- 
curately, more distinctly than if it had been carefully 
recorded. We heard his weeping and his labored breathing 
as he went in search of the Kid, when the boy was stolen from 
him. We knew exactly the tone of his lovemaking, and all 
the tones of his enraged fury. Now that the public demanded 
sound, what was to be done? He hardly knew. Slowly, step by 
step, actors had developed a recognised form of art, as lim- 
ited and precise as the artificial arts of the stage. "Film 
players," said Chaplin, "have learned that the camera can 


reproduce ideas, though not words. Ideas and feelings are 
the things we play with, and they are richer than words. Film 
actors have grasped an alphabet of gesture, the poetry of 
movement. They know that gesture begins where words 
leave off." With sound the infinitely rich world of gesture 
was to be abandoned; henceforward there was to be the lim- 
ited little world of meaningless conversations, of I-love-you's 
and I-hate-you's, the poor emotion fixed in the tone of a 
voice like a photograph fixed in acid. 

Since there was no escape, since the public demanded 
noise, Chaplin was compelled to develop a compromise. 
Through City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dic- 
tator he held fast to his compromise. He would introduce 
sound, but on his own terms. He would not play to the 
music; he would allow music the privilege of entering on his 
own terms, as an echo of his own miming, a sardonic com- 
mentary. It was a happy solution, but a limited one, for there 
are only a limited number of brays, whistles, rude noises, 
catcalls, and most of them are best imagined. The delicious 
sound which a fat lady makes when she falls on a heaped 
basket of fruit is not adequately reproduced by the blare of 
a trombone, and Charlie's desperate little whistles when he 
swallowed a policeman's whistle were not adequately repro- 
duced on the sound-track of City Lights. It is not only that 
we can imagine these things better, but we are sometimes 
certain that the sound-track fails to convey the richness of 
the sound that first came to our ears. When Charlie eats 
spaghetti at the restaurant, and then by imperceptible de- 
grees finds himself eating paper streamers, we are allowed to 
imagine most of the subtle sounds which accompany his chew- 
ing of these things. We hear the goose-gabbling orators, but 
we never hear the sighs of the flower-girl, and this is proper. 
But there are occasions when we miss sounds we had ex- 
pected to hear. When the Rolls Royce drives up to the corner 
of Hyde Park where the blind girl is sitting, the car makes 
no sound at all and the door opens in a mysterious silence, 


and these are sounds we had expected to hear, as one expects 
to hear in any street-scene the vague background music of 
people passing. These were minute faults in a film prepos- 
terously filled with good things. 

City Lights was long in the making. Whole scenes were 
composed before the coming of sound. The most wonder- 
fully successful of all the scenes was already in existence in 
1926, five years before the first showing of City Lights. In 
those days it was called The Suicide, a short fragment of film 
which he had thought of employing in one of his earlier 
films and then abandoned, because he could see no place for 
it. It opens with Charlie on Christmas Eve sitting on a stone 
bench of the Embankment facing the Thames. He shivers, 
gazes for a moment at the lamps whose light shining upon the 
black river provide the ironic title for the later film, then 
chews on a morsel of crust, one of those crusts which the 
inexorable tramp had stolen from the birds. He looks at the 
river, then turns away, then looks at the river again. 

A great giant of a man in evening dress comes drunkenly 
down the steps. Charlie glances at him, and pays no more at- 
tention to him until he sees that the drunken giant is pre- 
paring to tie a rope round his neck and at the end of the rope 
is a huge stone. Charlie decides to reason with him. He ex- 
plains that life is, after all, worth living. Are there not birds 
in the air? He smiles, and his fingers twitter. Are there not 
women? He smiles again, and draws the exuberant outlines 
of a woman on the dark air. Is there not wine? Once more 
he smiles, and makes the happy gestures of a drunk. The 
giant however is plainly determined upon suicide. Birds, 
women and wine— he has known them all, and he finds no 
comfort in them, and there is no comfort in Charlie, that 
little mouse of a shivering man who had come down to the 
river to contemplate his inevitable end. Engrossed in his task 
of suicide, the giant throws Charlie out of the way, and 
Charlie, resigned to his fate, can only shrug his shoulders 
miserably. He makes one last effort to intervene, and ap- 


proaches the man who is in the act of bending down to lift 
the stone. As he bends the rope slips from his neck and falls 
over Charlie. Then the man straightens himself and with a 
huge, labored straining of his muscles he lifts the stone and 
throws it in the water. Charlie is thrown with it. Seeing 
Charlie threshing his arms, sucked down by the weight of 
the stone, the giant teeters on the edge of the river, over- 
whelmed with laughter. When the river is quiet, he walks 
back jauntily up the Embankment stairs. 

This incident was expanded when Chaplin came to work 
on City Lights, and the small changes he made were signif- 
icant changes. Instead of a crust of bread, Charlie is seen 
to be holding the white rose which he has bought from his 
beloved flower-girl. It is no longer Christmas Eve, but one of 
those melancholy evenings in early spring. Charlie is no 
longer oppressed by the world's misery, but by the misery of 
love, and he has no desire to drown himself. On the contrary 
he has the most abundant reasons for living. He is no longer 
a down-at-heels vagabond, but a small clerk in the city who 
has just been thrown out of his job, with a clean shirt, a bow 
tie and an impeccable bowler hat. Finally, instead of the 
drowning scene, there is the hilarious comedy as each in turn 
throws the other into the river, yet the memory of the former 
version remains in the starkness of some of those scenes 
where they fall into the water, grapple, vanish and rise to the 
surface only when we thought they must have perished. Com- 
paring the two versions, we can watch Chaplin's mind at 
work as he softens the contours of tragedy and gives them 
the shape of pathos, yet never quite succeeds in eluding the 
sense of tragedy which snaps at his heels, the mask of Cer- 
berus. We see the dog-face when they dance in the water, a 
dance as savage and lighthearted as that later dance which is 
performed in a ring with Charlie at the mercy of a towering, 
hard-fisted pugilist, avoiding blows by miracles of toework 
and sleight of hand. 

City Lights begins with an advantage lacking in all his 


other longer films: there is no narration, and almost no story. 
It is made up of odds and ends intricately woven together. 
The story of the manic-depressive millionaire has nothing to 
do with the story of the blind flower-girl, and the scenes in 
the boxing ring are almost entirely irrelevant, while Charlie's 
excursion as a road-sweeper who thinks he has finished his 
job for the day only to discover that a passing elephant has 
perceptibly added to his labors, is an affront to the delighted 
intelligence. Inexplicably, Charlie wears a sun-helmet and 
white ducks for his sweeping job; no explanation is offered, 
nor is any explanation desired; we assume that it is perfectly 
natural that Charlie should wear a sun-helmet in the course 
of his duties. Charlie goes to jail only because an ineluctable 
destiny has decreed that Charlie should go to jail if there is 
a jail handy. The scene in which he ogles a nude in a store 
window from his uncertain point of vantage on a sidewalk 
elevator could have been placed anywhere. The long scene 
which begins with the millionaire in a mood of blissful 
drunkenness, then passes through all the phases of manic- 
depression as the millionaire determines once again to com- 
mit suicide, then explodes into gunfire as the gangsters re- 
veal themselves from behind curtains— this interminable 
scene with its grotesque pauses, its breathless gropings after 
revolvers, its air of real menace which was to return many 
years later when Chaplin came to outline the portrait of 
Monsieur Verdoux— all this is wholly wrong and wholly right, 
every detail admirably in place, every rhythm, as the Cheap- 
Jack says in Dickens' Dr. Marigold, "wonderfully like the 
real thing, of course a little refined and humored." 

It is pure magic, this gentle coaxing of four or five separate 
stories together, the same kind of magic which was performed 
by Coleridge in Kubla Khan, which is hardly at all about 
Kubla Khan, for it brings together an Abyssinian maiden, an 
Emperor of China and a nameless magician who has drunk 
the milk of paradise, and places them incomprehensibly in 
a landscape where incense-bearing trees flower among domes 


of ice, and somehow near by the rivers are in full flood, a 
flood strong enough to destroy the maiden and the Emperor 
and all the incense-bearing trees of China and Abyssinia. 
"Gentlemen," Chaplin says, "I shall tell you the story of a 
blind flower-girl, of gangsters and boxers and millionaires 
and road-sweepers and jail-birds and suicides and cops. I 
shall take you to the most delightful restaurant where I shall 
demonstrate how an apache dance should be danced and how 
a man may eat spaghetti to his greatest enjoyment. I shall 
show you the misery of a man with a whistle in his belly. At 
the end I shall show you a face so terrible and beautiful that 
you will almost wish you never set eyes upon him." It is 
hardly possible to imagine that the most voracious schoolboy 
would ask for more. Humor is inseparable from charity, and 
in City Lights charity brims over. And since the Catholic 
theologians, who have studied laughter more resourcefully 
than the academic philosophers, are of the opinion that char- 
ity is one of the three chief virtues, we are entitled to believe 
in the moral goodness of the play. Fortunately or unfor- 
tunately such belief would be ill-founded. There is no moral 
to the story, and the heartbreaking stare which concludes the 
story is simply the face of Pan as he goes on his way, forever 
in despair and forever in enjoyment of the world. 

The despair in City Lights reaches depths which are vis- 
ible in no other film composed by Chaplin; the humor 
reaches heights soaring above anything he composed later; 
yet the violence of the humor, the way it takes wing and 
flashes and burns at the most dangerous moments of the 
drama, derives its strength from a despair so great that Chap- 
lin nearly broke under the strain. The death of his mother 
occurred in October 1928, when the final form which the pic- 
ture would take was still undecided: there existed already, in 
his mind or in film, sequences with the blind flower-girl and 
the drunk on the Embankment, but as always the pattern 
grew slowly, gradually emerging as a pearl emerges, chang- 
ing with every gust of experience, every new instrument he 


attached to his service, while grief shook him and the chal- 
lenge to produce a film which would make use of music ex- 
cited him. From childhood he had been a fair musician; now 
he taught himself to be a good one, and learned to compose 
music and then later went on to master the art of conduct- 
ing—whatever happened he would place his seal on the film 
as the chief actor, director, producer, designer and composer, 
determined that it should not become the composite which 
was the fate of nearly all Hollywood films. Everything de- 
pended upon the success of the film. It was rumored that he 
was "played out," that he could never adapt himself to the 
new world of sound. He had no gift for seeming. He was 
incapable of hiding the hurts he received, and he still la- 
mented the coming of sound. "They're trying to force me to 
speak," he told Sam Goldwyn. "But I will not! I will not! 
If City Lights is a failure, I believe it will strike a deeper 
blow than anything else that has ever happened to me in this 

It was not quite true: the death of his mother had struck 
him with the deepest blow he had ever received, or was ever 
likely to receive. But the turmoil, the months and years spent 
on City Lights, left their mark. The portrait of the tramp 
assumed new dimensions. In The Circus he was already 
tense, fastidious, strangely remote, with more of Deburau 
in him than Grimaldi, white-faced with fear and shock at the 
world around him but still capable of an honest shrug of the 
shoulders, a sudden lunge at a pair of healthy ankles. In City 
Lights the blind flower-seller is an image of loss, just as the 
manic-depressive millionaire is an image of the powers of 
finance, which reward and punish with purely arbitrary 
favors. He does not insist upon them as images, but they are 
more than life-size, painted in heraldic dimensions, and both 
of them, like the roaring King and the woman rocking the 
cradle in Intolerance, have the aspect of a deus ex machina. 
Like the murderous boxer they represent vast powers almost 
beyond his strength to propitiate. Once again he returns to 


the tradition of the Commedia delV Arte, for the flower-girl 
has become pure Columbine, the millionaire is pure Harle- 
quin, the type of all worldly wisdom and the fickleness of its 
favor, and Charlie is Pierrot at last, the eternal poet and out- 
cast, the possessor of a secret wisdom, the lover of the moon. 
But it is in the portrait of Charlie that the greatest changes 
can be observed. He is still fickle, still fastidious, still 
strangely remote, but other elements have entered into him. 
It is not only that he has achieved new and unsuspected 
dimensions, but he has achieved dimensions one would have 
thought to be impossible: sharpness of grief and closeness to 
death have sent the wit rocketting— the wit of Villon as he 
composes an ode on all hanged men as he stands at the foot 
of the gibbet, delighting in the images of death and savoring 
them, but only because he knows he has one chance in a mil- 
lion of escaping the noose. There is something of the supreme 
vanity of the suicide in the tramp as Charlie depicts him. If 
life, the world and the universe will not go his way, then so 
much the worse for the world. He will not forsake the stage. 
He will wait till the very last moment. He will neither beg 
nor complain. He will help the suffering and take the last 
ounce of amusement from a situation. The last privilege of 
cowards, which is to whistle in the dark, he will cheerfully 
surrender; he has better things to do in the dark. The per- 
petual misery of the world he believes to be unredeemed and 
unredeemable; but in the brief interval while he remains 
alive and can demonstrate his human courage, he will flaunt 
his bravado. His enthusiasm is terrible. He is all a dangling 
nerve. He is a spiritual dandy, a knight of the faith on a mis- 
sion to save what can be saved: the blind girl, himself, what- 
ever decency is left to the world. He does not care whether 
he wins or loses. In the peculiar world which obeys its own 
laws, he disregards the inessentials; the girl must be saved, 
money must be acquired to save her, she must never know 
the rent has not been paid. Almost he loves disaster, because 
in disaster all the inessentials fall away; and when disaster, 


so long expected, falls upon him, when he is taken to prison 
and he has no means of knowing whether the girl will ever 
recover her sight, he still waves his ridiculous cane in a de- 
feat so jaunty it amounts to a triumph. 

In City Lights Chaplin was saying things he had never said 
before, and would never say again. They were not things 
which can be easily translated into words. The enigmatic 
lonely figure of the tramp had set so many questions and an- 
swered none— a gesture, the raising of an eyebrow, some 
subtle twist of the body, the shoulders, the posture of his 
head, these were his answers, and since the movements of the 
human body are universally understood, this was enough, 
and we must make what we can of the fire and ice which 
contended in his nature during the progress of this film. It 
is part of the strength of an imagination like Chaplin's that 
he states the problem and leaves the predicament bare. There 
are no easy solutions. We can only guess sometimes at the 
emotions he expresses. Some things we know: we know that 
the clown's distress is permanent, we know that he walks in 
the landscape of irony like someone born to it, while there 
is always a strangeness in the way he walks upon the earth. 
We know that some of the characters are deliberate projec- 
tions of his own mood: there is a sense in which the flower- 
girl is himself, as resigned and helpless as he is, with no hope 
except in the fortuitous workings of chance. The millionaire 
is also in a sense a projection of Charlie, for Charlie also suf- 
fers in himself those same rages, those same inconsequential 
changes of mood. It is as though, having called upon music 
to offer echoes to the mime, the characters themselves are 
also no more than echoes. The millionaire and the blind 
flower-girl are only the extremes of himself; his misadven- 
tures are those of a man in a hall of mirrors, continually 
confronting his selves, amused but otherwise unperturbed 
at each succeeding confrontation. Out of those simple con- 
frontations with himself, those sly glances in the mirror, 
those delicate gestures of recognition, he creates a whole 


world where nothing is as anyone expected it to be, where 
giants loom suddenly out of sidewalk escalators, elephants 
parade out of nowhere and wander into nowhere, and boxers 
as fierce as Goliath are determined to batter him out of the 

The world of City Lights is a terrible world where the lit- 
tle tramp can hardly breathe. With unchanging sang-froid 
Charlie moves through one terrifying complexity into an- 
other, never sure of himself but always giving the appearance 
of assurance, never at rest, living in stark fear and terror of 
what may happen next, in that milieu where mad million- 
aires and shady boxers prosper and the poor tremble at every 
knock on the door, where it is never possible to relax and wits 
are sharpened beyond any imaginable refinement, so that 
Charlie himself is continually being cut on the sharpness of 
his own wit. Yet— and this is the most wonderful thing about 
the film— Charlie never insists on the terror, greets it calmly, 
is never surprised. He even pretends to reassure the specta- 
tor. He says in that frail, piping, unheard voice: "Keep your 
seats, please. That whiskered minotaur which suddenly came 
out of the grating— it is not very dangerous. No, no, not at all, 
it's perfectly natural— really a most charming beast." And 
when the minotaur, in the shape of a homicidal millionaire 
or a boxer or a young tough, comes roaring after him, he 
will always tip his hat to it before running as fast as his legs 
can carry him. 

But though Charlie exudes an air of friendly tolerance of 
terror, there are many moments when he is hopelessly cast 
down. He can face dragons, he will cheerfully beard the lions 
in their dens, he will dance his way out of almost any ex- 
tremity, but there are some extremities which leave him wit- 
less and appalled, some cruelties which leave him blinded 
with tears. There is a scene in City Lights where he finds 
himself gently maneuvering his fingers out of a glove. How 
lovingly he watches the emergence of his fingers! How de- 
lightful to recognise them again! With what elan he performs 


his fastidious gesture! A clown may be understood by the 
behavior of his knees, but a gentleman is understood by the 
behavior of his gloves, and so he attaches to the ritual of 
removing his gloves the most charming subtleties of recog- 
nition, and the fingers, freed of their protective prison, dance 
happily into freedom. The gloves, however, are threadbare. 
They are held together by minute threads, little pieces of 
string, perhaps a safety-pin or two. A young tough nips off 
one of the carefully husbanded fingers and dangles it mock- 
ingly before Charlie's eyes. Charlie snatches it back, horror- 
stricken; and on that face, so delighted before, there appears 
a look, not of anger or of hurt vanity, but of simple incom- 
prehension before the inequalities of life, and all the enigmas 
of human cruelty. 

So it is throughout the film. The hurt, appealing look 
when the dogs come bounding after him, larger than life- 
size, simply because he swallowed a whistle, and this whistle 
stuck in his throat continually summons the dogs; the look 
of pained perplexity when he tries repeatedly to light his 
own cigar but only succeeds in lighting the cigar the million- 
aire is waving in front of his face;. the misery and joy with 
which he greets the flower-girl when he comes to her room; 
all these spring from the simplicities of life, from a knowl- 
edge of the world as it is. There is no longer any effort to 
caricature: no caricatures from Dickens, nothing approximat- 
ing to farce. The world is so real that one must not play with 
it. Even in The Circus, where the mastery was assured, there 
are moments approaching farce— the sequences of the clowns 
shaving one another, the whole episode of William Tell, the 
mad monkeys on the tightrope— there are those moments of 
staccato farce, an attempt towards easy solutions, a playing 
to the gallery. But in City Lights these charming solutions 
are abandoned, and there is no effort to escape from a worjd 
whose careful limitations are only too well-known. Even the 
boxing scenes, where Charlie maneuvers himself into dancing 
an incredible ballet with his adversary, are of the stuff of life. 


We laugh ourselves sick. The ballet goes on beyond all ex- 
pectations of time. Impossible to believe that Charlie could 
remain alive for more than a few seconds against that brute, 
yet he survives because he dances and because he possesses a 
magic talisman. It is a strangely powerful talisman. It is— a 

From the earliest days Charlie had put a flower in his but- 
tonhole or simply twirled it in his hand as a badge of his 
authority. He was gazing at the flower in the beginning of 
City Lights, as though he hoped to divine its secrets, and at 
the very end he is still twirling the flower desperately as he 
gazes at Virginia Cherrill. What secrets does the flower pos- 
sess? We may never know. Some clue, perhaps, is provided 
by Coleridge who wrote in his notebook: 

If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a 
flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been 
there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke 
—Ay! and what then? 

Coleridge did not answer the question, nor does Charlie. It 
is enough that the flower should be there. 

Chapter Seventeen 

Modern Times 

Jtvecently Chaplin gave a private showing of 
a film. Before the lights went out he cleared his throat and 
announced: "By courtesy of the greatest genius of our time, 
Mr Cecil B. de Mille, we are now about to show you The 
Sign of the Cross.'' Soon there appeared on the screen the 
opening reels of Modern Times. 

Chaplin's introductory remarks were not, of course, blas- 
phemous. There is a sense in which The Sign of the Cross is 
blasphemous, and Modern Times is devout. De Mille pro- 
duced a chocolate-box version of the Gospels arranged with 
considerable finesse, though the tortured Christ became a 
sentimental character in a well-worn charade. When de Mille 
was attacked for having produced the film, he answered that 
he had aimed simply to tell a familiar story with all the de- 
votion he could muster. Unfortunately, it was precisely the 
devotion which was lacking. Christ was made to assume the 
behavior of an enthusiastic Rotarian. There is one scene 
where He stands with His skirts billowing about Him as He 
faces a mob: the scene is on the verge of high drama. For the 
rest he proved that he was no better at telling the story of 
Christ than the writers in the Sunday magazine supplements; 
it was not only that reverence and devotion were absent, but 
they were never allowed to appear. Hollywood was a ma- 



chine, and Christ was caught up in the machine. And though 
there are brief occasions when de Mille's sense of a theatrical 
gesture is superb, as when the dwarf in Samson and Delilah 
jabs at Samson's legs with the jawbone of an ass, he lacked 
the imagination to make drama from the Gospel story, and 
failed to see it in terms of agony. 

Modern Times is an essay in the agony of our time. 
Though it is fantastically funny, it is intended to relate to a 
real world. In this world devotion has a place, and though 
Chaplin clowned through Modern Times he was also express- 
ing his pity for the poor devils who must race against the 
conveyor belts. In the foreword to the film he stated: "Mod- 
ern Times is the story of industry, of individual enterprise- 
humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness." The fore- 
word was not be taken seriously any more than the program 
note to Monsieur Verdoux: "Von Clausewitz said that war is 
the logical extension of diplomacy; Monsieur Verdoux feels 
that murder is the logical extension of business." But Mon- 
sieur Verdoux is not exercising the business of murder in the 
manner of a man running a business, or if he is, he is appall- 
ingly incompetent. As for the Charlie who appears in Mod- 
ern Times , he has one good look at industry and flees in 
terror. Life in a dog-kennel, he suggests, is infinitely superior 
to life in a cogwheel. Once again comedy has become the 
decoration for desperate truths, for the agony of our time is 
precisely that we are caught up in the wheels of machines 
which have never known where they are going and will never 
know. Slowly, ineluctably, the machine is beginning to master 
us. As so often in Chaplin's films, the comedy is pure ter- 
ror; and when Charlie is caught in the wheels and sent spin- 
ning from one cog to another and is fed with an automatic 
feeder which is insanely out of temper, so that it feeds him 
with nuts and bolts with the same careless effrontery as it 
flings pies at his face, we are aware that the monstrous in- 
vention is hardly more than a slight exaggeration. We laugh 
not because of Charlie's predicament, but because we are 


suddenly confronted with the world's predicament, and 
surely there is a touch of hysteria in our laughter. 

Charlie, the cogwheel who is tired of being a cogwheel, 
escapes by going insane, but for a brief period before mad- 
ness descends on him, he remembers his ancient royal dignity 
as the great god Pan. Picking up two wrenches at random 
and then holding them to his head like horns, he dances a 
ferocious little jig and leers at everyone, rolling his eyes. He 
is Pan incarnate, emerging from industry with a devilish 
gleam in his eyes, an unbridled desire to live the full life, 
and suddenly with the light of the gods in his face he begins 
to pull the switches, dancing and hopping from one switch 
to another— there never was such joy on his face as when he 
brings that whole grinding mess of machinery to a stop. 
Then, with a wrench in his hands, the memory of his former 
misfortunes merging into the memory of past desires, he runs 
after every mortal thing which resembles a nut, and proceeds 
to tighten it. He tightens the foreman's nose, the fire-plugs, 
and finally, as he rushes out into the streets, he proceeds to 
tighten women's buttons, and all the while there is the look 
of supreme, blissful abandon on his face. 

According to the script and according to the film madness 
now descends upon him and he peers out at us from a psy- 
chiatric ward. This is subterfuge, no better and no worse 
than the train-wheels which join the various episodes together 
in Monsieur Verdoux. When we see him again he is still the 
old familiar tramp walking disconsolately down an empty 
street where there are not enough cigarette butts to make 
him happy. The first part of the film with the glowering man- 
ager on the huge television screen, its mad machines and 
their crazed attendants is over, as it must be, since all the 
long films are divided sharply into episodes, usually four sep- 
arate episodes, each one amounting to the length of two reels, 
and now Charlie must go out and seek his adventures else- 
where. From this point onwards the film goes merrily to 


The long opening scene in the factory is one of the most 
astonishingly successful that Chaplin ever produced, compar- 
able with the dream sequence in The Kid and the final hun- 
dred feet of City Lights. It was comedy with a bite, and 
Chaplin was perfectly aware he was biting hard. "The things 
I tried to say in this film are very close to everyone," he ex- 
plained. "I know of a factory where the workers were fired 
if they went to the urinals too often. Everyone knows there 
are salesmen who have to maintain an incredible pace of 
salesmanship, continually driven by their bosses, and the ones 
with the lowest sales are automatically discharged, with no 
excuses accepted. You know about these things. Then you 
mustn't object if I put them on the screen and satirize them." 
Yet there was considerably less effective satire in Modern 
Times than in The Great Dictator or Monsieur Verdoux. 
There was no message, only a statement of the merciless 
idiocy of machines once they get out of hand. Such a message 
must be equally distasteful to industrialists and Communists. 
Charlie simply wanders into a factory, ties himself into knots 
among the machines and jauntily wanders out of the factory 
again, glad to be in a world where he can breathe freely. 
Once again Charlie makes a monkey out of the harsh world 
of authority. "Nonsense," said Chaplin, when he was accused 
of propaganda. "I was only poking fun at the general confu- 
sion from which we are all suffering." 

The film, which was released in 1936 at a time when 
general confusion was fast approaching chaos, was only inci- 
dentally concerned with modern times. Except for his ap- 
pearance in the gigantic factory, Charlie still lives in the 
timeless world before 1914, a world of slapstick. There are 
fat policemen waiting around every corner. When Charlie 
presents himself for a job as waiter in a cabaret there are the 
inevitable two kitchen doors marked "In" and "Out." It is 
still the world of Tillie's Punctured Romance. There is a 
football game with a roast duck, and for one miraculous 
moment Charlie finds himself launching a ship— the ship 


sinks— but the truth is that Buster Keaton did this kind of 
thing better by going down with his ship, straight-faced as 
ever. Charlie as a night watchman is an excellent and desir- 
able invention, and he is wholly delightful when he shows 
off the furniture and fur-coats in the store to Paulette God- 
dard, and puts her to sleep in the softest of all the store beds. 
He is equally wonderful when he tries to sing, having lost 
the words written on his cuff, or when he dives across a road 
on skates and plunges recklessly towards destruction. The 
final scene, where he wanders off jauntily accompanied by 
Paulette who wriggles her hips while he does a little dance, 
is a further exploration of the inevitable ending. Paulette, 
of course, is Charlie in skirts. She is like the Kid, one of 
those images which he creates by a kind of parthenogenesis: 
a similar who will help him to fill out his loneliness. But all 
these scenes lack the verve, the abandon and the stark gaiety 
of the scenes where Charlie is caught up in the roaring webs 
of machinery, fences with long-stemmed oilcans and goes hap- 
pily berserk. 

Charlie shares with James Thurber an unusual attitude 
toward machines. In his study of the annals of Freudian 
criticism Thurber came upon the commentaries of Dr Bisch, 
who disagreed with Dr Freud. Dr Bisch studied the case of 
a man who saw a car bearing down on him, and then began 
to teeter backwards and forwards until he ran smack into the 
car; and while not fully supporting the Freudian diagnosis 
that sex starvation was at the root of the trouble, Dr Bisch 
does remark that an automobile bearing down on you may 
be a sex symbol at that, especially if you dream it. Austerely 
Thurber replied that in his view, even if you dream it, it is 
probably not a sex symbol; it is more likely to be an auto- 
mobile bearing down on you, and should the event occur in 
real life and in the open air, it is reasonably certain that it 
is an automobile. It is an odd commentary on our times that 
we laughed when we saw Charlie among the machines, and 
still odder that it should need Charlie to remind us that the 


world of the machine is infinitely more dangerous to the hu- 
man being than anything invented by Dr Freud. Marianne 
Moore talks somewhere of real toads in imaginary gardens. 
What happened in Modern Times was the spectacle of a real 
man caught in the real cogs; and one day we may have to do 
with them what he did with them. 

It is all too easy to imagine that Charlie in the film is 
merely a depressed and neurotic man who cannot keep pace 
with the world of machinery. Who can? We pretend we can. 
We even pretend that the time will never come when the 
television screen is set up in the workmen's urinals. Can we 
be certain they are not there already? We know that in some 
factories hidden microphones are installed in urinals; it is 
only a short step from a microphone to a television screen. 
And what happens after the television screen? What unknown 
monsters lurk there? Or will everything be rainbow-colored 
like the atom bomb? When Pan shrieked in the engine-room, 
it may have been— it probably was— the equivalent of the first 
little whimper of panic. What happens when he really 

Conceivably (for one must expect the worst) the subtle 
commentators who describe a hundred years hence the age 
we are living in will forget to consult the works of Chaplin 
and Thurber. They are kindred spirits, resigned to the 
world's ills and devoted to the earthly joys, and they know 
the ground swells on which we walk. Consider Thurber's 
academic essay called Preface to Life, which should be re- 
garded as an essential textbook in any biology class. In that 
nightmarish story he tells of a Person hopelessly and forever 
displaced while never moving a yard from his native land. 
He is the supreme D.P., the forgotten man of the century, 
who makes his living the hardest way by writing light pieces 
of one thousand to two thousand words for the New Yorker. 
It is not, of course, he asks you to understand, that he would 
not prefer to be doing something else; it is simply that when 
an angel stuck a pin into the lists, this is what he got. His 


life is a constant misery; he would kill himself with a razor 
blade if he had not nicked himself too often. But he is lonely 
for his own company. Three or four times a day he will tele- 
phone to his own house, ask for himself in a low tone and, 
on hearing that he is out, sigh in hard-breathing relief. The 
fear, however, remains. Nothing is solved by the telephone 
conversation with the housekeeper, who may be his wife but 
is probably someone entirely unknown to him, someone who 
lives three streets away. No, the important thing, the matter 
which weighs on his mind, is that one day he may find him- 
self in, and then he will discover that all his expensive train- 
ing has been wasted: he has developed no technique to deal 
with that hideous possibility. How in God's name does one 
address oneself on a telephone? And then— what would hap- 
pen if one failed to recognise one's own voice? Worst of all, 
what of the astonished silence at the other end if one made 
some casual and completely inappropriate remark, like saying 
cheerfully: 'Tine day, isn't it?"— when it is raining. There 
are no answers to these problems, and the theologians have 
only just begun to deal with them. One does not hope for 
solutions from theologians, but it is always comfortable to 
know that they are facing our problems, not the ones they 
invented to amuse themselves with on holidays, at church 
synods and at festivals. There are times when Thurber raises 
problems which Charlie would not recognise as problems, 
for he has never met them. What, asks Thurber, is the correct 
behavior of a man walking along a darkening street when he 
looks quickly behind him and sees that he is being softly 
followed by little men padding along in single file, about a 
foot and a half high, large-eyed and whiskered? 

Charlie, of course, has never met these gentlemen, and 
would be tongue-tied in their presence. He is more accus- 
tomed to living in a world where the cops are nine foot high 
and correspondingly broad, and where the manager's accus- 
ing face is the size of a wall-map. Charlie can deal with the 
earth's immensity. He can, as he demonstrated to perfection 


in His Prehistoric Past deal with the small trivial things of 
life: witness the way in which he bludgeoned a flea to death 
with a single throw of a club. Goblins are outside his range, 
and so is fantasy. He lives in a real world. One's own voice 
at the other end of the telephone is something we may have 
to reckon with before long, but there is considerable evi- 
dence that the whiskered little men eighteen inches high 
have departed. In that faith Charlie continues to contend 
only with visible authority, having already enough trouble, 
and with no desire to further his burdens with an exploration 
of the creeping things that come out of the earth at night. 

Modern Times is not faultless, as The Kid is faultless. It 
has the fault, unusual in Chaplin's films, of beginning with 
a bang and never banging so loud again. Partly it was a fault 
of arrangement, the too-logical sequence of events from fac- 
tory to psychiatric ward, and then to prison and shipyard 
and dog-house and then to prison again. There can be very 
little excuse for sending him to prison twice, for we know 
already that he passes a few days every winter in prison, to 
keep warm, and do not need to have it rubbed in. There are 
faults which arise from conscious attempts by Chaplin to 
impose his will on Charlie. Chaplin had read of prisons 
where the prisoners had everything their own way, with stag 
parties in the cells and free beer for the warders. He decided 
to put the scene in the film, and so we see Charlie, after pre- 
venting a jail-break, rewarded with a private cell with all the 
modern conveniences. Inevitably he is pardoned at the mo- 
ment when he is most enjoying himself. This is not, however, 
the inevitability proper to Charlie, who can step out of prison 
whenever he wants to, and therefore may be assumed to have 
the power of staying in prison as long as he wants to. He 
misbehaves in prison. He makes gargling noises and delib- 
erately offends old ladies. At such moments he is acting out 
of character, and Chaplin has confused him with a monkey 
in a cage. What is surprising is that such moments are ex- 
tremely rare at all times after the Keystone comedies, and 


still more surprising that he should go out of his way to of- 
fend old ladies, for he is a bit of an old lady himself. As for 
the incident where Charlie takes "joy powder" and so ac- 
quires the strength of Popeye the Sailor— the strength enables 
him to hold back the tide of escaping prisoners— it must be 
accepted that this is a scene of crass ineptitude, the one major 
fault in the Charlie opus, and one that cries to heaven. Up 
to this point Charlie has always exerted his native wits, relied 
on his wits, seen no reason to employ anything but his wits. 
To have recourse to "joy powder" is like having recourse to 
opium when one cannot face the realities of the world, and 
this film was the one most deliberately concerned with the 
world's realities. 

It is interesting to enquire why Modern Times contains so 
much of the best and so much of the worst of Chaplin. Com- 
posed in an unusually short time, at the end of a leisurely 
tour round the world, with the usual vast expenditure of 
film— he exposed 2 15,000 feet and used only a little more than 
8,000 feet in the final film— it never found a central point 
d'appui. It could have been written wholly around a factory, 
but the prospect was hardly inviting. It could conceivably 
have progressed from a small handcraft factory to a night- 
mare of an elephantine machine-shop. It could have pro- 
gressed from any direction he pleased except the one 
direction it took— the direction of the pure vision of the 
opening scenes to the gags which attended its gradual de- 
cline. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Chaplin 
was so overwhelmed with the horror of the opening of the 
film that the rest became a deliberate escape from horror; 
when we see Charlie in the dog-house, or watch him diving 
into what he thinks is the sea, though it is only a small pud- 
dle, we are at the opposite remove from Charlie in the fac- 
tory. The rest is light relief, and if it is excellent of its kind, 
it failed to show the measure of Chaplin's genius. 

One cannot ask an actor always to show his best. There are 
bad paintings by Cezanne, atrocious paintings by Rubens 


and at least one terrible painting by Leonardo. Unfortu- 
nately, the character of Charlie is such that he is no longer 
Charlie when he is not perfectly in character. Since he is a 
trapeze artist walking on the points of his toes, we are sur- 
prised when we find him slogging manfully down a road. 
We do not expect a pianist also to be a boxer. The Charlie 
who immersed himself in the factory is not the same as the 
Charlie who quietly accepts life in a dog-house. Some clue 
to the failure lies in Chaplin's use of subtitles. There seemed 
to be thousands of them. Voices spoke in Modern Times, but 
they were never direct and human voices; they came through 
television, phonograph and radio; and when Charlie sang, it 
was wonderful gibberish, but not wonderful enough. 

Yet one should be grateful for the greater mercies: the 
scenes in the factory and the subsequent scene where Charlie 
falls off a truck with the danger flag in his hand and waves 
it frantically to attract the attention of the truck-driver, only 
to be arrested by the police as though he was inciting the 
workers with a Red Flag. We should be grateful too for 
the scenes when the night-watchman carefully displays the 
store's wealth to the little working girl. Above all we have 
every reason to be grateful for the dance of the cogwheels and 
the dance of Pan which brings it to a shattering end. 

In the year 1906 the poet Christian Morgenstern entered 
a disturbing note in his diary. He spoke of a time when a 
new kind of story would be invented far more potent and 
hallucinating than any existing hitherto. He wrote: 

A time will come when stories will be written "from beyond." 
I mean stories about much the same things as those of today, but 
whose peculiar fascination will be that the people portrayed will 
be made transparent— held up against the mystery. They will be 
characterised with entire belief in their reality, yet they will have 
the effect of hallucinations, they will hold us spellbound like some 
of the themes of poetry as we have known it hitherto, but the awe 
experienced by him for whom the old world has collapsed will be 
communicated in their portrayal too, so that they will at once 
entertain and excite a profound, uncanny wonderment. 


There is a sense in which Charlie had been composing 
such stories from the very beginning. In the opening reel of 
Modern Times we hear the authentic shudder of a world on 
the edge of doom. This was his art at its best; beyond this it 
was not possible to go. 

Chapter Eighteen 

The Great Dictator 

JL he Great Dictator was the fruit of long 
pondering, of many mysterious coincidences and of a fierce 
intolerance of dictatorship in all its forms. It was not merely 
directed against the Fascist states; it was directed quite openly 
at forces which existed within the non-fascist states. Con- 
fused, brilliant, wonderfully constructed, with passages of 
comedy as exquisite as any that came before, it was unlike 
anything he had created before, for it could not be called a 
comedy simply, and it was not in any real sense a satire. There 
was no name for this kind of desperate knife-edge adventure 
into territory never penetrated before— the territory of the 
darkest shadows, the most incontrovertible evil, the most 
tragic dilemmas; and under the strain of these evils the old 
character of Charlie broke down, and an entirely new char- 
acter was brought into being, with only a faint passing re- 
semblance to the Charlie who appeared on the streets of 
Venice. Beginning with the real Charlie, who appears in a 
kind of curtain-raiser, we watch the gradual emergence of 
a host of Charlies until at last, when we have penetrated 
through all the veils, when we think we are about to see the 
final apotheosis of the Tramp and the Vagabond, we see- 
the despairing face of Chaplin himself. 

American art has failed to grapple with the forces of evil. 


Alone of the great creators Melville saw evil plain, the huge 
brute force of it wallowing in the Pacific. In the plays of 
Eugene O'Neill the stage is littered with notices saying: 
"Here is incest" or "Here is evil," or sometimes there are 
larger notices saying: "Here are Tigers," just as the Eliza- 
bethan stage showed notices saying: "Here is the field of 
battle." But the real evil, the sullen unmoving ponderous 
and quick-witted thing, the evil which is like the eternity 
described by Dostoyevsky, "and which resembles an old lav- 
atory in Siberia where the spiders crawl," this evil had es- 
caped him, as it has escaped Robinson Jeffers. The terror at 
the heart of terror appears momentarily in the early gangster 
films, where the gangster becomes the tragic hero, destined 
for death not for the crimes he committed but for those he 
would have been incapable of committing, shot down by ac- 
cident when he was thought to be someone else, obtaining 
to dignity only because the death of the hero was as acci- 
dental as the death of a fly, and by his very anonymity, his 
extraordinary resemblance to everyone else, the hero assumes 
a genuine tragic character. In something of the same way 
the little Jewish barber by a series of accidents becomes the 
Great Dictator Adenoid Hynkel, the Napoleonic invader of 
Austerlich and convinced Emperor of the World. 

We are accustomed to see the emblem of evil in Melville's 
portrait of the White Whale, but what if the whale had been 
a mackerel? Or better still, what if the whale had been a 
sprat? Clearly, the fact of size has little enough to do with 
the fact of evil, and when Blake, in one of his most powerful 
designs, showed "the ghost of a flea," a design which em- 
phasized only that the flea was supernaturally evil, he was 
not trying to be funny. On the contrary, he was saying that 
evil may be everywhere, even in microscopic things close to 
the skin. As Chaplin designed The Great Dictator he seems 
to have been faced with a perpetual dilemma: should the dic- 
tator have the size of a whale or the size of a sprat? In the 
end he avoided the problem. To the dictator was granted the 


dignity of comedy, and he becomes far more comic, far more 
resourceful in his comedy than the little Jewish barber can 
ever be. We can believe in the barber. We never quite be- 
lieve in the dictator, for his mad capers, even the maddest of 
all, are close to the bone. How, he must have asked himself, 
does one caricature a caricature? How to use one mythology 
—the mythology of Charlie— to counter the mask of evil with 
its own mythological origins? When Adenoid Hynkel runs 
up the curtains with the agility of a mouse, or when he 
dances with a huge inflated globe of the world and hugs it 
to his breast in a wild longing to possess the whole, he is not 
being in any real sense comic, for Hitler had done exactly 
these things, or things very like them. A man who gnawed 
at carpets and regarded himself as the predestined inheritor 
of the Holy Roman Empire and most of Asia defies caricature 
because he is himself a caricature, the caricature of a my- 
thology. But the two mythologies, the one expressed by 
Charlie with incomparable gentleness and tenderness towards 
all suffering creatures and the other expressed by Hitler with 
his brute force and rasping voice, have no point of contact. 
Hitler, the witch-doctor in a world of armed force, living in 
a madhouse surrounded by the mad servants of his will, was 
very much Melville's whale doomed to drown in one last 
explosion of terror, attempting to the very last to take the 
whole world with him. Without natural dignity, Hitler pos- 
sessed the dignity of the powers he controlled. Hynkel pos- 
sesses no dignity whatsoever of his own. What dignity he 
possesses he receives only by the grace of Chaplin, and even 
this dignity is often withdrawn. It is all dangerous ground. 
One false move, and the whole thing will topple to the 
ground. The genius of Chaplin kept it alive, but we are con- 
scious of the sense of strain, while Chaplin blows on the em- 
bers and somehow keeps the dictator alive. 

It is not, of course, that Chaplin had any desire to keep 
him alive. His horror of Hitler was real, swift, direct and 
personal, and horror was continually getting in the way. The 


imitations of Hitler at a party rally, ranting and grimacing, 
screaming gibberish, the face streaked with sweat and the 
eyes set in an asinine glare, were wonderfully contrived, but 
it would be absurd to deny that there was something won- 
derfully effective in Hitler's bestial roar, and Chaplin's imi- 
tation was a tribute from one genius to another. To those 
who have heard Hitler and felt the hot animal rage blowing 
on their faces, Chaplin's parody was no longer amusing; it 
was far too close to the real thing. Worse still, it was precisely 
in those moments when Hynkel ranted that he achieved a 
vicarious dignity, for there entered into that absurd screech- 
ing with its meaningless and insane travesties of the German 
language the healthy roar of a trapped animal. So perhaps 
had Pan roared in the forest glades when he was deprived 
of the sceptre by Apollo. The most successful, the most amus- 
ing and the most artistically conceived piece of mimicry in 
The Great Dictator was also the most dangerously accurate 
reproduction of the real thing. Chaplin was quite aware that 
the ranting was inadequate, however brilliant, and long after 
the film was completed, he discovered that by breaking the 
voice into shorter explosions and by substituting more real 
words, he could achieve a parody which did greater violence 
to the original. By this time it was too late, and new enemies 
had arisen to take the place of a ranting ghost. 

The story of The Great Dictator went through many 
changes. Originally conceived around 1935, when the full 
impact of Hitler was being felt upon the world, it received 
nourishment during the axis war against Spain. Chaplin's 
sympathies, like those of President Roosevelt, were supremely 
on the side of the Republican forces, and he made no effort 
to disguise them. The result was that the portrait of Hitler 
became inextricably confused with the portrait of Franco, 
and though the little Jewish barber belongs to the German 
ghettos, he is also at times any Spanish peasant caught up 
in the struggle to survive. The little fleshy Franco, posturing 
in the Escorial, so small that he seems to be all boots, stomach 


and mustache, can be seen at intervals— one more of the 
many clowns who disguise themselves as Hynkel throughout 
the desperate comedy. 

Originally, according to newspaper reports, the story was 
simpler. It was to begin with a concentration camp, the long 
parades of shuffling Jews and outcasts from the Hitler regime, 
and a bullying camp commandant, who demanded instant 
obedience of his savage and meaningless orders. Charlie at- 
tempts to carry them out, fails, is thrown into a prison, 
escapes and runs away with a Jewish girl, only to find him- 
self in the hands of conspirators who have arrested Hynkel 
and do not know what to do with him. They find that Chaflie 
is prepared to do anything rather than enter the concentra- 
tion camp. He will even assume the disguise of Hynkel, 
while Hynkel himself is forced to enter the camp, where he 
barks orders, insists he is Hynkel, and is kicked for his pains. 
Charlie becomes dictator. The storm-troopers prostrate them- 
selves to the ground before him. Extraordinary ceremonies 
take place, and Charlie, who cannot in the least fathom what 
is happening, grows more and more miserable until he de- 
sires nothing so much as to return to the concentration camp, 
where he at least enjoyed greater freedom than in his palace. 
Finally, there is an assassination attempt, but the woman who 
is sent to assassinate him finds him weeping and he reveals 
his misery to her. She helps him to escape into Switzerland, 
and we see them for the last time when they have avoided 
the frontier guards and are making their way down a Swiss 

The original story, so much closer to the Charlie mythol- 
ogy, was abandoned for many reasons. In the first place it 
could be interpreted as pure comedy, and Chaplin had no 
intention of returning to pure comedy. Determined to say 
things which needed to be said, and still retain the elements 
of slapstick, he decided to widen the story of mistaken iden- 
tity, and by the end of 1938 there was already a version in 
existence called The Dictator, which was described as a dra- 


matic composition in five acts and an epilogue and bore the 
subtitle: "The story of a little fish in a shark-infested sea." 

In this provisional story most of the elements which later 
went to make up The Great Dictator appeared, but they were 
curiously out of focus. Put together in another form, with 
a slightly different background and with a sharper emphasis, 
they might have contributed to the comic drama which Chap- 
lin had always hoped to make— a film which would have the 
kind of impact which the comedies of Aristophanes had on 
their Athenian audiences. He wanted to shake people, and 
at the same time he wanted to be funny in a desperately 
serious way. Confronted with the image of Hitler, how could 
it be done? He did not know. He made his way forward by 
a series of preliminary skirmishes, and though the second 
version has a greater profundity than the first, it is also 
strangely unsatisfactory, and we can see now why Chaplin 
was forced to more complicated solutions. 

The second version begins, characteristically, in 1912: 
which is to say that it begins outside of time altogether, in 
the world before history began, the world of the kids' auto 
races and the custard pies. On some unknown battlefront in 
Europe Charlie is seen shouldering arms for Ptomania (Bac- 
teria) against the "Alliars," and after a series of trench ex- 
periences deriving from Shoulder Arms Charlie returns to 
Ptom, the capital of Ptomania, only to discover that though 
the war has been won, a little cock of the walk called Hinkle 
has entrenched himself in authority; the war won by the 
Ptomanians has been the means of Hinkle's rise to power. 
"Furor" Hinkle is, of course, a parody of Hitler. All arms 
are raised when he appears, and even the dachshunds must 
raise their legs. There follows a scene where Hinkle meets 
Dictator Mussemup of Ostrich, and they swear eternal loy- 
alty to one another. Meanwhile Charlie is arrested, shipped 
to a concentration camp and escapes in a storm-trooper's uni- 
form, and soon he is mistaken for the Furor, while the real 
Furor is arrested as an impostor. Meanwhile Herring, the 


air minister, has decided upon an aggressive campaign against 
the state of Vanilla, and there comes the great day when the 
Furor must dedicate his armies for the war against the in- 
solent state of Vanilla, but instead of declaring war Charlie 
makes an appeal for peace. In this big speech, which follows 
with important differences the same rhythms and the same 
mood as the speech of The Great Dictator, Charlie calls upon 
all nations to put down their arms. "I don't want to conquer 
anybody," he says. "I want to do good by everybody. Because 
—because this is a big world, and there's plenty of room for 
all of us in it. Yes. Even for dictators. Even for Hinkle. He 
wants to do right. He's just full of hate and bitterness— that's 
all." Having made his speech, Charlie stumbles away, the 
lights fade and he wakes up in a concentration camp with a 
storm-trooper glaring down at him— the image of all the 
bruisers and cops he has fought in the past. Charlie smiles, 
with that smile which is his perpetual weapon against ad- 
versity. The storm-trooper also begins to smile, but imme- 
diately afterwards the smile freezes on his lips. Then he says: 
"Get up, Jew, where the hell do you think you are?" 

The final version of The Great Dictator was very different, 
or rather it included the second version as it included (at a 
great remove) the first version, but Hinkle changes to Hyn- 
kel, Mussemup to Napaloni, Ptomania becomes Tomania, 
and Vanilla becomes Austerlich. Something more than a 
change of names has occurred. The emphasis is no longer 
simple or ironic. Hinkle might be endearing in an odd, 
idiot way, and so might Mussemup, but there is nothing en- 
dearing in Hynkel, who begins from this time onward to 
assume the violent eccentricities of a modern Napoleon, for 
if Franco enters the portrait, so does the deathless Napoleon 
Chaplin had once dreamed of playing, a man who returns 
from St Helena to find himself unrecognised and unknown, 
without power or armies, forgotten by the French and con- 
tent in his weariness to lose himself in obscurity until he 
sees how gullible the French are, and then he determines to 


put himself at the head of a conspiracy. The insurrection is 
just about to begin when news comes from St Helena that 
Napoleon is dead. Thereupon Napoleon cries out in remorse 
and frustration and agony: "The news of my death has killed 

It is interesting to watch in Chaplin's mind the gradual 
development of the portrait of Hynkel, to see Chaplin strip- 
ping away the sentimentality layer by layer, coming at last 
to form a portrait which has clear outlines, though the out- 
lines themselves are extraordinarily complex. Chaplin said 
once that he regarded Hitler merely as "a small, mean, nerv- 
ous and neurotic man." True enough; but just as there is 
more to the devil than plain badness, so Chaplin, fascinated 
by the comic possibilities of a modern devil, found himself 
perplexed by the continually obtruding Napoleonic over- 
tones, the sense that he was dealing with something larger 
than life and must make his enemy credible. In the end he 
only half succeeded. The final portrait of Hynkel has some- 
thing of the grace of a hyena, and a hyena's blind will to kill. 
Hynkel is at turns ferocious, stupid, boorish, determined 
upon power and jealous of power, strident, nervous, delicate, 
sweet-tempered, bewildered and insane. He is all these, and 
more, as he must be, for how else could one represent Franco, 
Napoleon and Hitler in a single character? There never was 
such a medley of opposing characteristics in a single comic 
character, and where the film fails, the failure arises from 
the extraordinary incoherence of the portrait of the dictator, 
who is no longer simply the dictator, but the Great Dictator, 
another kind of animal altogether, more than Napoleon and 
only a little less than God. The pity, which was present in 
the earlier versions, now disappears, if only because the time 
for pity had passed. Originally conceived as a play in defence 
of the Jews, the film was begun when a tragedy even greater 
than the tragedy of the concentration camps was occurring— 
Hitler had begun the conquest of Europe. So the small de- 
tails of the war in Shoulder Arms are exchanged for the 


larger details of Big Berthas and airplanes, and the loaded 
last lines of the second version have to be abandoned. Per- 
haps it is a pity. To emphasize even on the comic stage Hyn- 
kel's grotesque madness may have been a fault, for it is 
inconceivable that the armies of Tomania would ever have 
attacked Austerlich at his command. They might— they prob- 
ably would— have attacked Vanilla, which has no overtones 
of Austerlitz. Yet, though there are abundant imperfections 
in the play, the imperfections which connect the author to 
his play also connect him with the audience. He was drawing 
the picture of a very real Hitler, and The Great Dictator, 
when it was first performed publicly on October 15, 1940, did 
mirror in a surprisingly accurate way the popular imagina- 
tive portrait of Hitler. It was also prophetic. Hynkel was an 
experiment in Napoleonic grandeur, bourgeois simplicity 
and madness, and these were precisely the qualities which 
Hitler showed during the last months of the war. 

The Dictator was an attempt to write a tragi-comedy on 
the plight of the Jews; The Great Dictator attempted to de- 
scribe the plight of men everywhere, and particularly of the 
soldiers, and to do this seriously and with the utmost comedy. 
All would have been well enough if the little Jewish barber 
had been half as credible as the dictator. Unfortunately, he 
is not. Only one magnificent and irrelevant comic scene is 
given to him: his performance as he shaves a customer to the 
tune of a Brahms Hungarian dance. For the rest he is the 
foil for Hynkel, and he never acquires the stature which 
would permit him to make the final curtain speech. The au- 
thority of the speech stems directly from Chaplin, not from 
the little barber, who has neither suffered enough nor known 
enough to be the vehicle of a speech of such magnitude. 

The third version of the play begins with a recapitulation 
of some of the themes already announced in Shoulder Arms. 
Charlie is about to fire an enormous gun, but he has no con- 
ception of what the gun is about, and regards it very much 
as primitive man must have regarded a dinosaur. He fires it. 


The first shell hits an outhouse, the second dribbles out of 
the muzzle like a huge spluttering Chinese firework, turns 
on him and begins to follow him all over the gun and all 
over the neighboring landscape. The mad destructive shell, 
like the destructive wheels of Modern Times, caricatures the 
malevolence of machines, the horror of war and the blank 
face of Hynkel, but in Modern Times Charlie was able to put 
a term to the destructive wheels by pulling the switches. On 
the battlefield he can only put a term to himself. The comic 
possibilities of the shell are soon exhausted, yet they an- 
nounce the theme: the senselessness of destruction. Long be- 
fore Hynkel enters the scene we are aware of him: he is the 
shell with legs. It should be observed that in these prelimi- 
nary scenes Charlie is not the only comic character; the shell 
also possesses, in its amazingly contrived efforts to outwit 
Charlie, a dancing gait and a desperate comic character of 
its own. "Everything that touches upon death is of an as- 
tounding gaiety." 

Unfortunately the statement is only too true: the best mo- 
ments of The Great Dictator are those which come close to 
death, Charlie with a loose hand-grenade wandering in his 
sleeve, Charlie suddenly turning and running back during a 
charge, saying "Excuse me" politely to the soldiers who are 
still advancing, Charlie in the airplane flying upside down 
and doomed, it would seem, to a certain death. This mad 
flight in a mad airplane was very close to Chaplin's heart. 
Asked once which of the adventures of Charlie gave him the 
most amusement, he said he would cheerfully put this at the 
top of the list. The scene is completely incoherent. Seeing 
the sun shining below him, he takes out his watch which im- 
mediately sweeps past his face and stands vertically above 
him. The water from the canteen spills straight up into his 
face. Everything is going the wrong way; and as he gazes 
entranced upon an inverted world Charlie has an expression 
of consummate happiness. His companion in the airplane 
launches into a dithyrambic poem on Spring, which oddly 


announces one of the themes of Monsieur Verdoux, for the 
airman speaks gently of his girl who never wanted to cut 
daffodils, but preferred to see them untouched and virgin. 
At that moment the airplane crashes. After the blaze, the 
airman emerges, gently continuing with his rhapsody, speak- 
ing about the beautiful spring-like soul of his beloved and 
how she loved children and animals. All this is the purest 
nonsense, for we know that it is not the airman but Charlie 
who is dithyrambic and possesses that ingenuous soul. Noth- 
ing in this scene has very much to do with plot or story. This 
is as it should be. If there was plot or story we should feel 
defrauded. All we have is a few threads joining the incidents 
together, and even these are perhaps unnecessary. 

There follows our first introduction to Hynkel gabbling 
like all the wild geese of the world. It is masterly gabble, but 
as we have already observed, there is danger in that mastery. 
"Democratia shtunk!" Hynkel yells. "Libertad shtunk! Frei 
sprachen shtunk!" He has a furious fit of coughing, and be- 
gins again. Hynkel is on the rostrum, addressing the mob, 
and Herring is beside him. Herring jumps up, and inevitably 
splits his trousers. Hynkel addresses the world, brother of the 
mayor in City Lights who made his wordless speech to the 
sound of a trombone. The trombone had the effect of de- 
priving the mayor of his dignity; the terrible macaronics of 
Hynkel have a completely opposite effect. He is almost cred- 
ible. The voice, in its daemonic fury, has a beauty of its own, 
and when later Hynkel kisses a baby and gets his hands wet 
from holding her, and when he raises his arm in a fascist 
salute towards Venus and the Thinker, whose arms are also 
raised, we are aware of no incongruity: in this way it hap- 
pened, and Chaplin has only parodied what is above parody. 

The thin threads which hold the film together are sharply 
visible when Garbitsch (Goebbels) turns to Hynkel and com- 
plains that the Jews are not being punished enough. "Yes, 
things have been too quiet in the ghetto recently," Hynkel 
answers, and then we fade into the ghetto where Charlie is 


suffering from amnesia as a result of the airplane crash. 
There follows a scene which possesses all the rowdy overtones 
of the Keystone comedies. Charlie, the barber, enters his shop 
after months of absence. The cats come running out, there 
is dust everywhere, cobwebs cling to the ceiling. Some Storm 
Troopers are painting the word "Jew" on the window. 
Charlie immediately wipes the sign off, to be clubbed for 
his pains. In a hilarious scene, which derives from his rope- 
walking experience in The Pawnshop and the drunken or- 
gies of One A.M. Charlie teeters up and down the road, 
having been hit during the subsequent brawl with a frying 
pan accurately aimed by Hannah, the girl whose presence in 
the play is never sufficiently explained. Then the airman, 
now a big-shot Storm Trooper, enters the scene, releases 
Charlie from the attacks of the other Storm Troopers and 
says wistfully: "I thought you were an Aryan." "No," says 
Charlie, "I'm a vegetarian." It is as though Charlie was deter- 
mined to wear his Keystone disguise to the very end. 

Some of the obscurities of The Great Dictator arise from 
the different forms of comedy employed. Slapstick is followed 
by cunning passages at arms, Deburau by Grimaldi, remem- 
bered fragments of The Kid by fragments of Laughing Gas. 
The little Jewish barber is mostly slapstick, Hynkel alone is 
allowed the privilege of entering the world of the tightrope 
dancers, though at odd moments he will show that he is per- 
fectly capable of slapstick. The trouble is that he is altogether 
too delightful. When an inventor enters with a new kind of 
parachute and falls to his death after springing out of the 
window, Hynkel turns to Herring and remarks: "I wish you 
wouldn't waste my time like this." The remark is excessively 
appropriate. When Garbitsch says the prisoners are com- 
plaining about the sawdust in their bread, Hynkel says 
sweetly: "It's from the finest lumber our mills can supply." 
We shrug: we are not in the world where these things hap- 
pen, but in a world where fear is removed by virtue of the 
mind's license to say what it pleases in defiance of the conse- 


quences, for the mind knows there will be no consequences. 
So the philosopher David Hume could say, quite deliberately 
and without archness: "It is not contrary to reason to prefer 
the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my 
finger." When Hynkel discovers that three thousand strikers 
are keeping back production he orders them all to be shot, 
explaining: "I don't want any of my workers dissatisfied." 
Once again parody hugs the original too close. 

For the rest of the film the parody and the original are 
almost inseparable. When Hynkel is told by Garbitsch that 
he will soon be dictator of all the world, and will be wor- 
shipped as a God, Hynkel simpers: "You mustn't say that. 
You make me afraid of myself." Then, shaken by a paroxysm 
of fear, Hynkel darts across the room and runs up the win- 
dow curtains like a mouse. It is a magnificent moment, and 
one of the greatest in all Chaplin's work, but it is not com- 
edy. It is at once truth and tragic farce, an exploration of 
the character of Hitler leading to the pure mimicry of the 
dictator. This mimicry is perfect, but it is not funny, for the 
fearful little animal who runs up the curtain and the juggler 
who subsequently dances to the tune of the Lohengrin Pre- 
lude are magnificent recreations of the real horror. This is 
no longer Hynkel, but the insane mask of Hitler. Even when 
Hynkel, juggling with his balloon on which the map of the 
world is painted, breaks down in sobs when the balloon 
bursts, we are in the real, tangible world of the Berlin Kanz- 

The dance of Hynkel gives place to the dance of the little 
Jewish barber, who shaves his customer to the tune of a 
Brahms Hungarian dance. The scene has the perfection of 
great comedy, but since it comes immediately after Hynkel's 
dance it is wholly misplaced. It is as though Chaplin were 
saying: "Well, I have shown the dictator dancing, now I 
must show the barber dancing." Yet the sheer brilliance of 
the two dances has the effect of suspending disbelief. Both 
dances are pantomimes, both make use of stylized sound and 


stylized movement without speech. They are music-hall turns, 
as artificial as classical ballet, and to have dared to introduce 
them so nakedly into the play shows incredible boldness. It 
is in these passages that Chaplin for the first time showed 
his mastery of the use of sound in pantomime; in Monsieur 
Verdoux he never reached these heights. 

Slapstick follows when the Storm Troopers attack the 
ghetto, and Charlie is forced to flee. He dives into a barrel 
head first, hides in a cellar and takes part in an extraordinary 
scene of conspiracy where it is decided to blow up Hynkel's 
palace— all that is left of the earlier version in which the 
conspirators played a far larger part. The conspiracy is paro- 
died. A coin has been buried in a cake. The man who finds 
the coin must blow up the palace. The barber eats his cake 
slowly, masticating carefully, and we hear three tinkles— three 
coins. The girl Hannah has deliberately sabotaged the con- 
spiracy, saying it is wrong to blow up the palace— she has 
filled the cake with coins. Afterwards the conspirators go on 
their way, Hannah to Austerlich and the little barber to a 
concentration camp. 

Into Hynkel's palace comes news that Napaloni is massing 
his armies on the Austerlich frontier. Hynkel falls into a 
rage, strips Herring of his medals, declares immediate war, 
tears up the declaration of war and invites Napaloni to a 
conference. Napaloni arrives. There is some wonderful fool- 
ing as his train refuses to stop in a way which will allow him 
to step directly on the red carpet. With difficulty the two 
dictators greet one another while edging each other out of 
camera range— a trick which derives straight from Kid Auto 
Races in Venice. Hynkel plans that while they are at con- 
ference, Napaloni shall sit in a low chair facing the light, 
under the steady gaze of a massive statue of Hynkel. Things 
do not work out like that. Hynkel is waiting for Napaloni 
when he observes that the Italian has entered by another 
door and has no intention of sitting in a low chair. They 
discuss the war they will wage against Austerlich and go out 


to take the salute at a mass parade of troops. Airplanes fall 
out of the air, and Napaloni comments: "They're yours all 
right." The atmosphere is strained. It grows even more 
strained during the ball in which Hynkel dances with the 
fat Signora Napaloni. The dictators decide to celebrate by 
some duck-shooting, but it so happens that the little barber 
has escaped from the camp and comes wandering near the 
duck pond. Mistaken for Hynkel, he is carried in triumph 
by some Storm Troopers to the grandstand where Hynkel is 
expected to deliver his orders to invade Austerlich. The lit- 
tle barber climbs ponderously up the immense stairway to 
the dais, and begins his speech. He speaks simply, straight- 
forwardly, with all the passion in his soul. He says: "Hope," 
and then pauses, as though the word was so beautiful that 
he could only pause. "I'm sorry," he says apologetically, "but 
I don't want to be an emperor. That's not my business. I 

don't want to rule or conquer anyone " 

The curtain speech of The Great Dictator aroused contro- 
versy; today it would probably arouse less. The very sim- 
plicity of Chaplin's impassioned text, which falls at times 
into loose pentameters, gave it peculiar depth and resonance; 
such simple words are not often heard on the screen. The 
long speech, which covers two pages of text, said what Chap- 
lin wanted to say, and he saw no reason why he should be 
deprived of saying these things. He said: 

Fight for liberty! In the 17th chapter of St. Luke, it is written: 
"The Kingdom of God is within man"— not in one man nor a 
group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the 
power— the power to create machines. The power to create happi- 
ness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and 
beautiful— to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the 
name of democracy— let us use that power, let us all unite. Let us 
fight for a new world— a decent world that will give men a chance 
to work— that will give youth a future and old age a security. By 
the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they 
lied! They did not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators 


freed themselves, but they enslaved the people! Now let us fight 
to free the world! 

What Chaplin was saying was precisely what millions of peo- 
ple in occupied Europe desired to say over the radio. Such 
words had been employed before; there was nothing new in 
them, except the manner of the speaking of them. He had 
painted the Great Dictator as the supreme Lord of Misrule; 
now it was time to come to earth; and if he said things which 
were corny, it can be argued that the Beatitudes were al- 
ready corny at the time they were delivered. Understandably, 
the film was never released in the Soviet Union. 

Chaplin was faced with no alternative. He could only end 
the film with the vision of blessedness, for no other vision 
was possible. The folly of the dictators was his theme, and 
he dared not suggest even by implication that their folly 
was enduring, for it was precisely their mad folly which he 
found unendurable. "It would be much easier," he said, "to 
have the barber and Hannah disappear over the horizon, off 
to the promised land against the growing sunset. But there 
is no promised land for the oppressed people of the world. 
There is no place over the horizon to which they can go for 
sanctuary. They must stand, and we must." It was as simple 
as that then, and as simple as that now. 

Chapter Nineteen 

The Sweet Worm Turns 

At is only the artist, and maybe the crim- 
inal, who can make his own life," wrote Somerset Maugham 
in his autobiography, and though the first effect of the words 
is more startling than the second, they are worth pondering. 
One day, when he was talking to Clare Sheridan, Chaplin 
found himself pondering the same problem, and said: ''Crim- 
inals, you know, and artists are psychologically akin. Both 
have a burning flame of impulse, a vision, a deep sense of 
lawlessness." It was a passing remark, thrown off in a casual 
moment. Is it true? 

Perhaps we shall never know the answer, because we shall 
never be able to isolate the mind of the artist or the crim- 
inal. The artist's devotion to his craft involves a sense of 
law, a hard and tortured mastery of his material. He deals 
with uncertainties, and must make them certain, and he lives 
at such a pitch of emotion that he is in perpetual danger of 
becoming inhuman, a world in himself at odds with the 
world he is living in. But to live in such a world is not to be 
a criminal, and in spite of Wainwright the poisoner and 
Oscar Wilde very few artists have been criminals. Yet 
throughout history they have been fascinated by the minds 
of criminals, seeing in the criminal something they lack, 
some explosive power denied to them. 


Monsieur Verdoux is many things— there never was such 
a complex film— but it includes the study of a murderer. By 
definition, since the film is subtitled "A Comedy of Murder," 
he is a comic murderer, and in fact he never murders; we 
are conscious only of the perpetual threat of murder seen 
in its most comic aspects. The burning flame of impulse, the 
deep sense of unlawfulness which characterised Raskolnikov 
in Crime and Punishment, are wholly absent. But the vision 
remains, and it is the quality of Chaplin's vision, as he exam- 
ines the figure of Monsieur Verdoux through four improb- 
able murders which take place offstage, that repays our study, 
for what he says in the film is very close to the bone. In this 
film, which is pure comedy and one of the three greatest that 
Chaplin has produced, there is also pure pity, and this pity is 
deliberate. "I intended," said Chaplin at the time when the 
film was first being shown, "to create a pity for all humanity 
under certain drastic conditions." 

The staggering importance of Monsieur Verdoux lies in 
the fact that in an age of murder it is the only film which 
deals honestly with murder, holds it to the light and shows 
it to be the contemptible thing it is. Hollywood and the 
Soviet cinema in their different ways had attached a glamor 
to murder. They had shown how exciting, delightful and 
breathtaking it was to shoot down defenceless men, how de- 
licious it is to torture, how enviable are the men with guns. 
The death of a man by shooting him down provides an ap- 
propriate solution for bringing a film to an end, so that even 
in a film like Crossfire, which claimed to have a high moral 
purpose, the curtain falls on a defenceless man running down 
a deserted street while the windows open and invisible guns 
fire down on him. In the Soviet films the murders are on a 
larger scale. They show battles unlike battles which have 
ever taken place. In Alexander Nevsky the Teutonic Knights 
are caricatured, made to resemble heraldic beasts, with iron 
chimneys on their heads, and deprived of any grandeur; the 
cadets in The End of St. Petersburg become fat young women 


bursting through their military clothes; in Chapayev the en- 
emy is composed of ridiculous tailor's dummies, pompous 
and effete beyond credibility. No pity is shown for the en- 
emy, nor for their own dead who are, by the fact of dying 
for a cause, translated into that world of cloudlit sunrises 
and trumpets with which Mr. Cecil de Mille has painted so 
many of his conclusions; and indeed there exists a terrible 
similarity between the films of Mr. de Mille and the Soviet 

Outside of Monsieur Verdoux and other Chaplin films I 
can think of only two moments of real pity in American and 
Soviet films. One occurs in Fritz Lang's Fury where the cam- 
era hovers over the prisoner in his cell, his face glowing with 
flames and shadowed by prison bars. He is waiting for the 
time when the prison doors will be burst open and the mob 
will enter, and somehow, but only for a moment, Fritz Lang 
was able to identify the prisoner in his cell with all the suf- 
fering of trapped humanity, all its hopes, its fears and its 
nobility. The other occurs in Ten Days That Shook the 
World. A dead girl lies on the edge of a bridge, and as the 
bridge is raised her hair is swept upward, and this black 
slowly moving wave of hair showers its beauty like a blessing 
on the dead girl. There are moments which approach to pity 
in Intolerance, where the woman rocking her cradle was a 
symbol for the pity which was felt by D. W. Griffith, but 
there are not many such moments in film. 

The triumph of Monsieur Verdoux lies in its pity, the 
poignancy of the tramp invading the whole of the world in 
which Monsieur Verdoux lives. Inevitably, Chaplin was faced 
with the problem: What happens when my tramp is tired of 
gathering crumbs? He has always hankered after respectabil- 
ity. Let him gather diamonds. Let him murder. He has al- 
ways been the most humble and the most ordinary of persons, 
and now that we are living in an age of murder, and all of 
us are most humbly taking part in wars, where shall we be- 
gin? Shall I have him wearing his tramp's uniform walking 


down a street, and suddenly committing a murder for no 
reason at all? No, there must be a reason for it. Then let him 
murder as we all murder, gently, indirectly, giving assent to 
the words inscribed on the political documents, and at the 
same time (since he is after all a tramp and a clown) let him 
take his fun in murdering, and let us see what amusement 
can be extracted from it. It was only later that the air of 
menace entered the scene. It came perhaps with the music, 
that haunting music which he invented for the purpose, those 
lighthearted little tunes which had in them all the menace 
of the organ-music playing in London streets at twilight. 

But murder, as Monsieur Verdoux observes, is a serious 
business and must be regarded seriously, even in a comedy. 
It may be— there are no certainties, and no final conclusions 
are ever possible in discussing a film which outraged so many 
sensibilities— that it was precisely because Chaplin discussed 
murder seriously in this film that he was so bitterly attacked. 
Somewhere in the shadows of this film there was a savage 
indignation and a hint of mockery, Pan roaring in the shrub- 
bery, even a flash of hate and horror of the men who murder. 
For most people when they attend films murder is seen as a 
form of light relief, a pleasant titillation of the senses, the 
emergence of drama where there was only the required pos- 
turing of actors before. This time there was real murder, or 
rather there was the image of a man who looked in every 
way as though he was disposed to murder for the fun of it, 
far more murderous than Edward G. Robinson whose hid- 
eous mask announces "I am a murderer" in nearly all his 
films, but the announcement is not wholly convincing. 

Monsieur Verdoux was convincing. From the moment 
when he stepped out from behind the garden incinerator 
with its little black dribble of smoke announcing the death 
of one more rich woman to the moment when his trial be- 
gins, he assumes an air of authenticity. He says: "Here I am! 
I present the first real murderer who has ever appeared on 
the stage! Look closely! See, I am not so very different from 


the man who keeps the tobacco-shop at the corner of the 
street and who disappears every Thursday evening. I am 
what happens on those Thursday evenings. I am also what 
happens in the headlines. I am everywhere. I love little chil- 
dren. Like Hitler, I weep when my dog dies. I have a fund 
of amusing things to tell you. Listen and observe. If you are 
careful you will see yourselves stripped to the bone. I am the 
world's lack of conscience, all your collective wickedness and 
folly, and if you will only look in my mirror—" Whereupon 
it was assumed that Chaplin was "guying" murder and amus- 
ing himself ghoulishly at the expense of people who are 
murdered, and if the irony passed unobserved, so did the 
savage indignation. 

There were many reasons for the failure of Monsieur Ver- 
doux to reach the large public it deserved, and not the least 
of them was Chaplin's success in making Monsieur Verdoux 
credible. The old-fashioned camera techniques, the way 
Chaplin would sometimes appear to be acting on one of 
those circular stages divided into four parts, the way he con- 
tinually occupied the limelight and seemed to move among 
the audience, continually injecting ribald comments and 
pointing to himself, the character on the stage, saying: "He 
is evil. Do something quickly, or better still search your own 
consciences," the extraordinary way in which Chaplin's moral 
conscience is present even in the most comical scenes, all 
these reinforced an illusion which Chaplin had hardly 
counted upon— the illusion that now at last the tramp and 
Chaplin himself had come together in the person of Mon- 
sieur Verdoux, who was assumed to be Chaplin himself 
subtly disguised. But to identify Monsieur Verdoux with 
Chaplin is an error of the same magnitude as to identify Bot- 
ticelli with a Botticelli Venus. Traits of Botticelli's physical 
appearance do in fact appear in all his Venuses. He could 
hardly avoid it, for he placed himself wholly at the mercy 
of his art, completely surrendering himself to it, and while 
he painted his model he was absorbed in the process of crea- 


tion to the extent that he became himself a part of Venus. 
But the air which Venus breathes is not the air of Florence, 
nor with her bone-structure would she ever have been able 
to walk down a Florentine street, or any street in this world. 
She was an ideal figure compounded from the artist's imag- 
ination, living in the world the artist created for her, in- 
dependent of our world though reflecting its splendor. 
Monsieur Verdoux only too successfully reflected the world's 
horror, and at the same time he incriminated the whole hu- 
man race. 

Monsieur Verdoux is a document which incriminates, but 
it is also uproariously funny. How can these be reconciled? 
In fact they were never completely reconciled, for though 
Monsieur Verdoux incriminates he gives the utmost pleasure. 
He is the judge condemning a man to death while at the 
same time blissfully inhaling a nosegay and talking so hap- 
pily about the smell of the roses in the intervals of giving 
sentence that we are first amused, then appalled. The utmost 
tragedy we know; the utmost comedy we can recognise; when 
they are combined we are at a loss. It is not the world we are 
accustomed to. We have compartments in our minds which 
register tragedy and comedy separately; tragi-comedy is a 
world which has never been sufficiently explored, perhaps 
because it is too close to the world we live in. When the Duke 
in Rigoletto sings his mocking and triumphant paean of love 
to his new mistress while an older mistress with her throat 
cut is taken past him in a sack, we do not laugh, nor are we 
particularly sorry. We recognise the world as it is. It is the 
way things happen. The murderer carefully smoothes down 
his hair, the boy in the electric chair as carefully settles him- 
self comfortably, the dictator weeps over the death of his dog. 
These things appal us because they are a part of our human- 
ity, and so, though we laughed at Monsieur Verdoux, we 
were appalled by the bloodstains which were all the more 
monstrous because they were invisible. Seeing Monsieur Ver- 
doux we recalled things like the wisp of human hair on 


Sikes's club, that sizzled for a second when he threw it on the 
fire. For here at last, disguised and at the same time stripped 
of disguise, we saw murder as it is. 

Chaplin was not the first to find laughter in murder, but 
he was the first to let the laughter flow out of the screen and 
mock the audience. The audience, shocked by the sound of 
that laughter, was not pleased. What was astonishing was the 
fury of denunciation which followed the first showing of the 
film, the sense of imagined outrage (as though he had not 
been deliberately outrageous), the belief that Chaplin was 
at last revealing his true face, and it was the face of a mur- 
derer. A leading Soviet producer denounced him as "a traitor 
to the working class." The Catholic war veterans and the 
American Legion denounced him as a traitor to America 
and to art. Westbrook Pegler denounced him in a whole 
series of scurrilous attacks, and suggested among other things 
that Monsieur Verdoux was the product of a diseased imag- 
ination. He received large quantities of anonymous abuse, 
mostly condemning him as a "damned Communist Jew." 
On the occasions when he troubled to reply, he denied heat- 
edly that he was either a Communist or a Jew, but he re- 
garded our whole murderous age as damned and therefore 
there was little point in insisting on damnation. Ruefully, 
he realised that Chaplin had become what Charlie had always 
been— a scapegoat. He had no desire to be a scapegoat. He 
fought against the public sacrifice until in the end he lost 
interest in the fight, and this only exasperated his accusers 
still more. What happens when the sacrificial goat refuses to 
lay its head on the altar and wait for the knife, but instead 
gallops out of sight? With the same levity, with the same 
sense of impending doom, Voltaire had described a holocaust 
of murders in Candide, and the same wild uproar of denun- 
ciation arose when it was first published. 

Since it is undeniable that we live in an age of mass-mur- 
der, and we are capable of allowing mass-murders to happen 
without protest, the accusation which lies at the heart of 


Monsieur Verdoux could hardly be treated with indiffer- 
ence; it could be accepted stoically, or it could be denounced. 
The accusation was not the hoary platitude: "War is a busi- 
ness, and you are all contributing to it." It said: "Murder is 
a fine art, and you are all busily practicing it. How outra- 
geously clever you are!" The accusation in these terms was 
an affront to the intelligence, which preferred not to believe 
in its own cleverness and sought refuge in its own innocence, 
that protective innocence with which we all clothe ourselves 
as we wander among the screaming headlines of our time. 

But if the film was prodigiously successful in revealing the 
sensitive places where we have all been wounded, it revealed, 
too, that Chaplin was a master at tightrope walking. Nothing 
is so difficult as to describe a tragic comedy, though the lives 
of all of us are tragic and comic at the same time. Andre 
Malraux, as previously said, tells the story of a small Chinese 
woman who slaps the face of her dead husband in bed, hop- 
ing to wake him, and while the old man's face wobbles from 
side to side, the children are overcome with ringing laughter. 
Why? What has happened? What is there about the dead 
which sometimes makes us laugh? When Raskolnikov in 
Crime and Punishment has a ghastly nightmare in which he 
sees his victim, after each stroke of the ax, turning round and 
laughing in his face, we know that the nightmare is real and 
the laughter can be heard even by the reader living at a re- 
mote distance from Dostoyevsky's Petersburg. There is noth- 
ing comic or happy in this laughter. Our gentlest laughter 
and the raving laughter of the hysteric are very close to one 
another; and this untravelled world of laughter, which few 
have successfully penetrated and where we dimly suspect the 
existence of landscapes still unrevealed, is precisely the ter- 
ritory which Monsieur Verdoux has taken for his own. With 
what glee he advances on his victims! With what effrontery 
he destroys the evidence of his guilt! With what disgraceful 
contentment he regards his chosen trade! Behind him, reach- 
ing to infinity, are the shadows of the other murderers, whose 


glee was as great as his and whose contentment is expressed 
by the medals on their breasts and the banknotes in the pock- 
ets of executioners. 

"The murderer hates himself," wrote Otto Weiniger in 
one of his extraordinary essays in human psychology, "and 
it is because he hates himself that he desires to kill. He de- 
sires his own nothingness to include others." It may be true, 
but it is possible that there are other reasons. I suspect that 
the murderer desires to abase his victim, to abuse him, to 
make him feel an endless hurt, an endless punishment, and 
in so doing he generally fails to accomplish his purpose, for 
the victim once murdered is unconscious of punishment and 
the murderer is eternally pursued by the knowledge of his 
own guilt. There are murders of passion which resemble 
suicide, for inexorably the murderer is hounded by his vic- 
tim, and for every inch that the knife goes into the victim's 
flesh, an invisible knife penetrates two inches into the flesh 
of the murderer. But what if the murderer murders simply 
for gain, casually, with the weary simplicity of a man looking 
up from the morning headlines and saying: "Great Britain 
has behaved abominably. I think it is time those islands were 
sunk below the level of the sea." Such casual hints of murder, 
without passion, belong to our time. "The whole world can 
disappear," says a character in Dostoyevsky's Notes from Un- 
derground, "as long as I have my cup of tea." 

It is in this world that Monsieur Verdoux finds himself 
delightfully at home. He, too, will have his cup of tea. In- 
deed, he enjoys his tea even when Madame Grosnay, having 
encouraged his advances and asked him whether his inten- 
tions are honorable, allows him to pursue her with the cup 
of tea in his hand, which he balances carefully even when 
he falls off the sofa in his ardor. He is the most decorous and 
most modest of lovers, who hides the tailor's shapely dum- 
mies because they are an offense to the eyes. He chooses his 
victims for their vulgarity, just as Hitler, with all the beauty 
of adoring German womanhood to choose from, chose an 


Eva Braun. He never excuses himself. When he tries to put 
a rope with a huge stone at the end of it around Annabella 
Bonheur's neck, and assumes a pleased, innocent smile when 
she suddenly turns round, the smile puts her off the scent, 
but it is also a tribute to his own cleverness, his dexterous 
delight in himself. He observes the absurd and laughable 
shapes into which these hints of murder disguise themselves, 
but he is himself completely without disguise, whether he 
goes by the name of Monsieur Verdoux, or Floray, or Captain 
Bonheur, or Varnay, or Charlie, or Count de Ha-Ha, or a 
nameless pawnbroker's drudge, or the great god Pan leaping 
out of the shrubbery to mock the lovers in the meadows. 

What is monstrous is his coldbloodedness and laughing 
gaiety, the tightrope walking on the edge of tenderness and 
hysteria, the sudden realization that Monsieur Verdoux is 
at once judge, victim and executioner, and that we know 
him only too well, though we have never set eyes on him 
before. We know that when he comes to the platform and 
the rope coils round his neck, he will carefully feel the weight 
of the platform and he will adjust the rope as though he 
were adjusting a tie, smiling to himself, even singing some 
desolate little tune; and when the trapdoor opens he will 
fall gracefully, waving sweetly to the onlookers, and perhaps 
on the way down making a little dive for the hangman's feet, 
as in The Kid he dived after the feet of a pretty girl. We 
know, too, that he is indestructible, and having dropped 
through the trapdoor, he will leap out again, like any Meph- 
istopheles leaping up in a blaze of red sulphur from the 
pantomime stage. 

But all this is only one side of Monsieur Verdoux's many- 
facetted existence. His charm, his quick wits, his instinctive 
sense of decorum are misleading, perhaps deliberately so. 
Though it is inconceivable that he really commits the mur- 
ders which are his pleasure and his method of obtaining a 
goodly income, there appears at intervals the face of the cas- 
ual murderer of our time. More than The Great Dictator, 


Monsieur Verdoux succeeds in describing the vanity of Hit- 
ler, the kind of mind which Hitler possessed. Chaplin makes 
him die in 1937 and gives as the reasons for acquiring money 
by illegitimate means his losses during the depression of 
1929; but all this is subterfuge, an effort to put us off the 
scent. It is even doubtful whether he was ever bankrupt; it 
is certain that he has no compulsive need to commit murder. 
With those quick wits, he could easily acquire an income as 
an insurance agent, an army officer, or even as a film pro- 
ducer. Henri Verdoux, merchant in objets d'art, rings false, 
and Captain Bonheur has never commanded a ship. He 
might be a flower-seller in some reputable neighborhood, or 
a dress designer: there are moments when he hints at these 
occupations. But his chosen occupation is the most terrible of 
all: it is to show by mimicry and defiance and by all the arts 
he can summon to his service the face of the casual murderer 
who hides in all of us. The moralist's intention is to de- 
nounce murder unequivocally and at the same time to coat 
the pill with comedy. 

The difficulties arise when we realise that the murders of 
our time are themselves essentially comic. "It was only pos- 
sible to understand the concentration camps with all their 
hideous murders and genuinely arbitrary terrors," wrote 
David Rousset after three years in a concentration camp, 
"when you realised that the Nazis were playing an insane 
comedy. They were playing the parts of clowns— clowns with 
knives, and simply because they had the knives in their hands, 
they acted in the murderous way we all know. But what if 
they had been given colored balls?" The answer, of course, 
is that we simply do not know, but we can assume that they 
would have been very nearly as murderous with their col- 
ored balls as they were with their knives. What is important 
is Rousset's suggestion that the concentration camps formed 
a meaningless impromptu comedy, where the punishments 
were curiously unreal and passionless, and if they had any 
purpose it was to amuse the Storm Troopers, to keep them 


awake and prevent them from dying from boredom, so that, 
when a man was hanged, broomsticks would be inserted in 
his sleeves and trouser-legs in such a way that even when he 
was hanging he appeared to be dancing, for his legs and arms 
were made to fly in all directions. It is the kind of comedy 
which Grimaldi played when he put a cop through the 
mangle and was delighted when the cop came out completely 
flat and five times larger than life, an effect arrived at with- 
out great difficulty, because the cop who came out of the 
mangle was made of cardboard. What is comic derives from 
the sudden shock of delight when we see the policeman 
transformed into cardboard, and we know that when the 
mangle is turned in the opposite direction the cardboard 
will become a policeman. Grimaldi had not debased the 
policeman. We see him in a ridiculous posture, and we iden- 
tify the cardboard with the cop by a leap of the imagination. 
If we had seen him really put through the mangle, we would 
have screamed with horror. In comedy it is essential that the 
dead be brought back to life. In the concentration camps 
there was a travesty of comedy, for the living were brought 
back to death, the world of death already inhabited by the 
guards in the concentration camp. 

What Grimaldi was doing in his gently murderous way is 
exactly what Chaplin has been doing in his films. He cannot 
murder. He cannot even hurt anyone. He can clamp a bully's 
head in a lamppost, as he does in Easy Street, but the bully 
will never show the mark of the agony he has gone through. 
He will kick people to his heart's content, but those immense 
and savage kicks have no effect except to send his enemies 
into graceful flight. He has Deburau's privilege: he alone 
may give the kicks. As for murder, this is beyond the clown's 
power; he could not murder even if he tried. As for being 
killed, it can happen only in his dreams. The only time that 
Charlie is ever shot dead occurs in the superbly comic scene 
in The Kid when Charlie, flying through the air amid a 
snowfall of feathers, makes a sudden dive at the ankles of a 


pretty girl, only to be shot by the policeman for his pains; 
when he wakes up, he is sitting slumped over a doorstep, and 
the policeman is shaking him. In comedy death can only 
take place off stage, for it is the purpose of comedy to an- 
nounce in the loudest tones that death is at all times highly 

Grimaldi's play with the policeman was repeated a century 
later by Jean Cocteau and the composer Darius Milhaud in 
Le Boeuf sur le Toit. Milhaud had composed some music 
based on Brazilian folk themes, intending the music to ac- 
company any short Chaplin film. Cocteau, who heard the 
music, was entranced with the possibilities of adapting the 
folk music to a ballet based on Chaplin's films. Unable to 
acquire the services of Chaplin in the principal role, the 
bartender, he did the next best thing: he acquired the serv- 
ices of the great Fratellini. The setting, designed by Raoul 
Dufy, was a speakeasy. The time was the early spring of 1920. 
The characters wore masks three times larger than life, so 
giving them something of the air of characters seen on a 
screen. There is a long, involved introduction. We see the 
bartender drying glasses, and the music repeats the whistling 
sound as each glass is cleaned with a twist of a rag. A Negro 
boxer enters, flexes his muscles, dances as boxers dance in 
the ring, and suddenly wearying of all this nonsense he col- 
lapses in an easy chair and picks up an enormous cigar. The 
cigar is not clipped. He asks the bartender to clip it for him. 
The bartender whips out a revolver and shoots off the cigar- 
end. Shortly afterwards a whole crowd of patrons enter the 
speakeasy: a Negro dwarf with a billiard cue, a woman in a 
red dress, another with paper hair, a bustling bookie who 
knocks out the huge Negro in a quarrel over one of the 
women, and finally, inevitably, the policeman enters, his 
progress announced by a long blast of his whistle. The bar- 
tender simply puts up a notice reading: ONLY MILK 
SERVED HERE. The policeman smells the glasses, sips the 
"milk," smells the breath of the patrons, sips the "milk" 


again, and to his surprise discovers that he is performing a 
jig. The bartender has only one desire— to rid himself of the 
policeman. Logically, there is only one thing he can do. He 
pulls a lever, and the huge revolving fan descends upon him 
and cuts off his head. This event astonishes no one. They 
continue to dance and make love and sing sentimental songs 
to one another. The Negro dwarf throws the head on a silver 
platter and dances with it up to the lady in the red dress, 
who gazes at it with the air of someone completely bored by 
so inevitable a thing as a policeman's head on a silver platter. 
Then she decides to dance round the head on her hands, but 
she loses her direction and dances off the stage altogether, 
followed by all the other patrons except the bartender, who 
carefully picks up the head, puts it back on the policeman's 
shoulders, comforts him, pats him on the back, and then pre- 
sents him with a check three or four yards long. In Le Boeuf 
sur le Toit Cocteau and Milhaud have produced the only 
imitation of Chaplin which bears a close imaginative resem- 
blance to the original; and here, too, as one might have sus- 
pected, the death of the policeman is only an excuse for 
bringing him to life. 

Monsieur Verdoux is concerned with death in exactly the 
same way that Grimaldi and Cocteau were concerned with 
death, but the mangle and the electric fan are absent. As we 
watch the film we never believe that Charlie is killing peo- 
ple, nor are we asked to believe it. There is no danse maca- 
bre, no savagery, no violence. We are invited to live on the 
borderland where murder is only hinted at, never openly 
committed. It is murder without terror, and therefore the 
most terrible of all, for that haunting murderer with his 
charm, his quick mannerisms, his air of indefatigable gentle- 
ness and suavity comes very close to us. We have seen his 
face before. We know those precocious mannerisms. Partly 
they belong to Charlie, but they also belong to Hynkel. He 
is Hynkel when, by some mysterious dispensation of fate, the 
power to command others is taken from him, and he can 


command only himself, and he is not unlike the suave Hitler 
who appeared in the princely drawing-rooms of Munich and 
Berlin in the days before he had created a ferocious party. 
So Monsieur Verdoux, without committing any murders that 
we can believe in, playing with murder as he plays with bank- 
notes, concerned with the comedy of murder to the exclu- 
sion of the comedy of life, provides a sense of overwhelming 
menace. He hints. The hint is enough. We shiver because 
we know that in our own time murder is practiced in the 
real world with the same suavity, the same gentleness and 
the most exquisite good manners, not by bank clerks but by 
diplomats. It is in this sense that the play was conceived as 
a tract for the times. 

What is surprising is how successfully Chaplin jumped the 
hurdles, succeeded in performing miracles of improvisation 
on a stage and in a setting dangerously close to the edge of 
probability. We live in an improbable world, but this did 
not make his task any easier. Deliberately coating the pill 
with the vast resources of his wit, he saw to it that the cold- 
ness of the murderer came through, and some of that delib- 
erate momentary coldness invaded the whole pattern of the 
film, with the result that there were some who claimed that 
it was cold beyond reason, and Monsieur Verdoux, however 
credible and however dexterous, was more ghoulish than 
Bela Lugosi had ever been. When Chaplin replied that this 
was exactly what he had intended, and that he regarded 
Dracula as a feeble discussion on horror, it was assumed 
that he was being clever or churlish. Instead, he was being 
desperately serious. "To create pity, I have had to create 
terror," he said. "Here you see the most terrible image that 
has ever crossed the screen, and one of the most human." 
Asked whether Monsieur Verdoux was the tramp in disguise, 
he answered: "Of course they are the same. Isn't he delight- 
ful?" In the same way, and with something of the same non- 
chalance, Goethe gave his best lines to Mephistopheles, and 
found him loathsome and delightful at the same time. 


When Monsieur Verdoux first appeared, it was said against 
Chaplin that he had abandoned "the lovable little man in 
the baggy pants." He had, of course, done nothing of the 
sort. There was no change— only a reversal of phase. Charlie 
had never been a sentimental figure. He was the murderer, 
the pimp, the panderer, the seducer, the criminal, the artist 
and I'homme moyen sensuel from the beginning, just as we 
have been all these things ourselves. In The Vagabond and 
perhaps twenty other films he had clubbed his enemies and 
left them on the ground. We knew long ago that when he 
was aroused his fierce disdain for the proprieties would lead 
him to some inexcusable crime. The pinch-bottle coat, the 
underfed caterpillar of a mustache, the menacing predatory 
gleam, the mingled fear and contempt of the law, all these 
had been there; he had insisted on them; there was never a 
time when he excused himself for his failings; and it was our 
fault if we saw him a sentimental figure. "Ah, if only he 
would make a film like The Kid again," they complained. 
"There was such a warm glow in him then." Chaplin could 
reply that in that detestable film Charlie throttled a police- 
man and made a living by practicing the trade of a glass- 
mender, a trade which was tolerable only because he arranged 
that Jackie Coogan should go round the streets of London 
hurling stones at window-panes. He had never earned an 
honest penny. He had lived under a number of bogus names. 
He had been to prison more times than he could remember. 
In His Prehistoric Past he had wielded a club, trampled upon 
a carpet of female adorers and knocked down a tribal chief- 
tain. In City Lights he kicked a beggar, and in The Pilgrim 
he kicked a child. Why should he be expected to reform? 
Inevitably, since all the evidence led only to this end, he 
would become a murderer. If he lived long enough he might 
even become a clown. It would be a fitting end to a man who 
had been a shanghaied seaman, a petty thief, a burglar, a 
child-stealer, an escaped prisoner, a scene-shifter, a tout, a 
boxer, a musical barber and a great dictator. The odd, the 


engrossing thing is that Monsieur Verdoux did not even 
trouble to conceal the fact that he was Charlie in disguise, in 
the thinnest disguise, a disguise which could be stripped off 
him with the greatest of ease. 

The old tricks were there— why were they not recognised? 
That smiling air of innocence when he committed a crime— 
we had seen it before in more than fifty films. The Monsieur 
Verdoux who thumbs the banknotes with appalling speed, 
is he not the same as the nondescript barber in The Great 
Dictator who shaves his customer to the music of a Hun- 
garian Rhapsody? The Monsieur Verdoux who tenderly re- 
moves a caterpillar from his path is the same Charlie who 
shared his last sausage with a dog in The Champion. The 
Monsieur Verdoux who lives among the monstrous mediaeval 
bric-a-brac in his shop is the same as the anonymous hero 
of One A.M. whose house is decorated with a stuffed emu 
and far too many cloisonne vases. In Monsieur Verdoux he 
enters the same prison which he entered once before in City 
Lights, and there is the same effortless shrug of the shoulders 
as the gates open. The harpies he murders, Lydia Floray and 
Thelma, whose smoke rose in goblets from the incinerator, 
have haunted his films time without number, and it is only 
reasonable that these women should be thrust once and for 
all from the screen. Monsieur Varney delicately cuts roses 
and offers them with an entranced smile to his victim; such 
offerings were almost Charlie's trademark. And when he 
was being thrown out of the factory in Pay Day, he offered a 
lily to the foreman. The exchange of flowers was a theme 
of the highest consequence in City Lights. It was said of Mon- 
sieur Verdoux that he was genteel, but Charlie was always 
genteel: witness his delighted disgust when Jackie Coogan 
wet the diapers. It is true that in The Kid he combined gen- 
tility with a suitable contempt for gentility, but if it is the 
mark of Pan that he should play music sweetly for the 
nymphs, it was also the mark of Pan that he would suddenly 
interrupt the music with a scream and send the nymphs 


packing. Terror and contempt, these too were present from 
the beginning. "But he was really frightening in Monsieur 
Verdoux/' they exclaimed. "If I see a comic movie, I want 
to see a comic movie— I don't want shivers going up my 
spine." Which was strange, for the shivers went up our spines 
when he scribbled his terrible game of noughts and crosses 
in The Face on the Bar-Room Floor, and all the fire-bells 
went ringing in the last remorseless scene where he stared 
in a maze of grief out of the last twenty feet of City Lights. 
"Yes, but City Lights was terribly amusing." Was it? There 
never was a film more intimately concerned with death by 
drowning, shooting and hanging. Murderers hide behind 
curtains, the Thames opens its arms for the suicide, the very 
rope which is pulled to ring the bell in the boxing scenes 
must twist round Charlie's throat, and surely the drunken 
millionaire with the nickel-plated gun in his hand is a men- 
ace to be feared, so that we sit on the edge of the seats in a 
fearful anxiety and torture, waiting for the moment when 
the gun will pass into Charlie's harmless hands. But in Mon- 
sieur Verdoux Charlie takes the place of the drunken million- 
aire, and his hands are no longer harmless, and the gun is 
pointed at our own heads. "I intended to create a pity for 
all humanity under certain drastic conditions." 

But in one sense of course the film was a complete failure. 
In the past he had been able to create pity for all humanity 
because he spoke no recognisable tongue. Now for the first 
time he spoke in cultivated English, with a faintly Bostonian 
accent mingled with the warmer accents of the South. It was 
such a voice as a Harvard graduate might use from his office 
in New Orleans. Though the name was French,* and so were 
the names of his victims, this was a subterfuge as outrageous 
as his impersonation of a honey-tongued bank clerk. He was 

* According to Chaplin the name Verdoux arose quite early in the preliminary 
discussions on the film. He was unaware that it could be translated as "the 
sweet worm." Adolphe Menjou played the part of Pierre Revel in Chaplin's 
production of A Woman of Paris, and it is possible that the name Verdoux 
comes from an unconscious mingling of the names Menjou and Revel. 


pure American, and as though to put the seal on his Amer- 
icanism he lifted one of his best lines from Calvin Coolidge's 
farewell message to the nation as he left the White House 
for the last time. Coolidge was asked to give that blessing 
which is demanded of Presidents when they have acquitted 
themselves of their onerous duties and retire from the scene. 
The newsreel cameramen and the reporters waited for the 
moment of benediction. Coolidge paused, raised his eyebrows 
and remarked casually: "Well, goodbye." As Monsieur Ver- 
doux sits in his small cell, a reporter comes to ask him for 
a final message, a final explanation. In his most ingratiating 
manner Monsieur Verdoux says: "Goodbye, now." 

There are other borrowings from further afield. Some- 
where behind Monsieur Verdoux there is the spectacle of 
Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, and a little 
to one side of him stands the English murderer Joseph Smith 
who played "Nearer, my God, to thee," on the harmonium 
while one of his wives was drowning in the next room. The 
sanctimony of Monsieur Verdoux is examined from all an- 
gles. "Don't pull the cat's tail," he says to his little son. "You 
have such a cruel streak in you. I don't know where you got 
it from. Remember, violence breeds violence." In conversa- 
tion with a druggist he discovers a poison which leaves no 
trace. "Think what an arch-criminal would do with it," he 
comments gratuitously. At another time, reflecting gently 
on the permanence of wars, he says ruefully: "Munitions? 
That's what I should have gone into." On the eve of his most 
gruesome murder he leans from the balcony and gazes at the 
moon. "This pale Endymion hour," he murmurs. "Our feet 
were soft in flowers." Lydia Floray snarls: "Get to bed"; but 
the beauty of the night still haunts him as he arranges the 
plates for breakfast, as he dances round the table, placing 
two sets of plates, until the absurdity of it occurs to him and 
he removes one set, for after all it will only remind him of 
the dear departed. He is appallingly vulgar as he hovers in 


those places which were once called "the antichambers of 
death," but how rich is his vulgarity. 

In the end he meets his match. One rainy night he finds 
Marilyn Nash huddled in a doorway, with a stray kitten hud- 
dled under her mackintosh. She is Monsieur Verdoux's alter 
ego. He, too, had once carried a dog in his capacious trousers 
or buttoned up in his cutaway. When he takes her to the 
dubious shelter of his apartment, she tells him she is Belgian, 
and has just come out of jail. Her Belgianness is as trans- 
parently false as his Frenchness; she is pure Cockney. He 
decides to murder her because murder has become a habit, 
but when she tells him that her husband died while she was 
in jail, he gives her money and weeps for her misery, and 
as she goes down the street his eyes follow her with a hangdog 
expression of grief— perhaps, he tells himself, he should have 
murdered her to make her happy. After all, the poison would 
leave no trace. Months later he meets her riding in a Rolls 
Royce. She is now the wife of a munitions manufacturer, 
the inevitable messenger of his own death. He delays with 
her when the police are on his scent. She asks him where he 
is going. "I go to meet my destiny," he says. Yet he has al- 
ready met his destiny. She is standing there in front of him— 
she is his destiny, and at the same time she is himself. The 
game of mirrors is played to the very end. 

At this point the film might very reasonably have termi- 
nated. The wheel has come full circle. Marilyn Nash, the 
gay and impudent tramp, is only Charlie in disguise. Ver- 
doux must destroy Verdoux, since otherwise he is indestruc- 
tible. The imprisonment, the trial, the gates opening upon 
the courtyard of the guillotine— but they are surprisingly 
similar to the gates which opened on Charlie when he went 
to prison in City Lights, and it is hardly possible to imagine 
that he will suffer grievously— all this is in a sense an anti- 
climax. "I go to meet my destiny," says the clown, but what 
other destiny has he but to clown forever? Put him under 
the guillotine, and his head will bounce up, leap over the 


whole infernal machine and join the body lying beside the 
basket. Grimaldi had cut his own head off and laughed to 
see it grow again, and Charlie could do the same without 
the slightest feeling that he was disturbing the order of na- 
ture. We cannot believe in his murders; we cannot believe in 
his own death; nor are we asked to. 

The enemies of Chaplin have taken the film at once too 
seriously and too frivolously. Years before he had said in an 
interview with Alistair Cooke that there was "a genuine 
danger that the little man would become too fragrant, too 
much like Everybody's Little Ray of Sunshine." The danger 
had ceased after The Gold Rush, but it haunted Chaplin, 
who was determined that Charlie should grow with the 
times. Charlie had always been the adventurer, stepping out 
alone into places where people feared to tread. Monsieur 
Verdoux was many things, but it contained within it an im- 
plicit condemnation of a society which condoned murder 
and made no serious effort to put an end to cruelty. The 
Russians condemned it because they saw that it assailed 
their authoritarian rule; the Americans condemned it be- 
cause their temper was vindictive. Both saw themselves 
parodied in the figure of Monsieur Verdoux, and neither 
recognised that in the film the forces of good were made to 
triumph. "The man is devilish," they said. "He burns a 
woman in an incinerator, and then takes care not to trample 
on a caterpillar. What kind of devil is that?" It is a strange 
question, for most of us know that devil only too well, and 
from time to time we have observed him peering from the 
human heart. 

When Chaplin was preparing Modern Times, he observed 
that there would be a few changes in Charlie. "In the new 
film," he said, "he will not be quite so nice. I'm sharpening 
the edge of his character so that people who've liked him 
vaguely will have to make up their minds." The sharpening 
was a slow process. It began with The Circus, many years 
before Modern Times, but in a sense it was not a sharpening 


so much as a further exploration and an attempt to bring 
Charlie into sharper focus. The old tricks remained, and so 
did the old ambiguities, the determination to have a foot on 
each side of the frontier. We laughed because we knew these 
tricks only too well— we have employed them ourselves since 
the beginning of our stay on earth. 

Why, then, did the audiences for which he had created his 
comedies turn so bitterly against him? Perhaps, after all, the 
answer is a very simple one. The world of the clown is the 
world of extreme danger, a world where no one may relax 
and nothing happens according to the law, a no-man's-land 
where only the bravest may wander, determined against all 
the odds to preserve their freedom. Today, the clown's world 
has caught up with us. We live in that no-man's-land. Like 
the teetering hut on the edge of the abyss in The Gold Rush 
which would fall if a single ounce of snow were added to its 
weight, we know that the smallest things may destroy us. We 
hear the roar of the avalanche in our ears, and we do little 
enough to save ourselves. The one thing that might save us 
is the sense of human dignity, and this Charlie in all his 
disguises has possessed in abundance. 

Chapter Twenty 

Portrait of the Moralist 

We live in ridiculous and desperate times; 
we are catching up with the Keystone comedies. We know 
that world only too well. The incompetent flatfooted cops, 
the mad bank presidents, the thugs in the alleyway, the pie- 
crusts which are disguised sticks of dynamite, the perpetual 
vision of peace in a world where every stone marks a hidden 
detonator and every road leads nowhere, all these we know 
because they are part of the world we now travel in. We 
travel blind, sustained by the hope that the blindness may 
miraculously fall from our eyes, and we do our best to re- 
main deadpan in spite of the possibility that our cities and 
all the people in them and all the works of art may be in- 
stantaneously transformed in a rainbow-colored cloud. There 
was something prophetic in Mack Sennett's world, that world 
which Charlie explored with the utmost abandon. There 
was a time not long ago when we laughed at the television 
face in the factory, of the mechanical feeders and the cog- 
wheels which forgot which way they were going. We do not 
laugh so much now. Today the thugs are waiting down the 
alleyway, and the cops overwhelm us always, and sooner than 
we think we may be living in flophouses or wandering down 
uninviting empty roads. The world is bleak and cold, with 


the wind coming through the worn rafters. In this dilemma, 
where do we stand? 

We may, of course, take our consolations where we can. 
We pay our income-tax regularly and read the books on child 
psychology; it is up to God and society to protect us. It is 
pleasant to repose in the justice of our cause, but it is no 
longer sufficient. We live in desperate times. We have no 
real assurance of victory. We blunder, and do not know 
where we are going. The roads ahead are blacker than they 
have ever been. In this extremity the only certain weapon is 
defiance, the purely human and instinctive courage to go on, 
whatever the cost, however many bodies we stumble on. Like 
the hanged highwayman who kicks off his shoes in a final 
gesture of invincibility, we may find that the only final con- 
solation lies in our determination to go on dancing to the 

Charlie, who represents to such an extraordinary degree 
the whole human race caught in its habitual rat-trap, does 
kick off his shoes, and we are abundantly convinced of the 
validity of his gesture of invincibility. But the matter is not 
so simple. The joyful contempt he flings at the face of his 
enemies has many origins. It is partly pure braggadocio. 
There is warmth in it, and extreme cold. There is a sense of 
human dignity and a splendid nonchalance. He will whistle 
to himself, and take pleasure in the sudden panic-stricken 
look on the face of his conquerors when they see he is un- 
conquerable. All his life Charlie has lived on the edge of 
things, as today we live on the edge of things, but he has 
behaved with decorum— the decorum is only too plainly un- 
derscored—and when the last moment arrives he has no re- 
grets, because he has a clear conscience. (He has stolen 
occasionally, but to steal food when one is hungry is, as St 
Ambrose observed long ago, one of those sins which are im- 
mediately pardoned in heaven). Indeed, far more than Sir 
Galahad, he represents the heroic figure of the man who 
remains pure and undefiled, and he is all the more credible 


because he is reduced to a human scale. And since human 
heroism consists in the refusal, even the absolute rejection, 
of all those things which tend to degrade the human splendor, 
Charlie emerges as the knight-errant of the back streets, the 
knight of faith, the devout tightrope walker who, simply by 
maintaining his balance on the tightrope, holds the circus- 
tent and everyone in it from falling into a bottomless abyss, 
and he can only do this out of his sense of impudent defi- 
ance—that complex defiance which, as we have seen, derives 
from so many different sources. He is a master of defiance, 
but sometimes when the highwayman kicks off his shoes he 
will imitate defiance by accident— there must be many times 
when what seemed to be defiance was no more than the nerv- 
ous spasms of the trembling bones. 

Kierkegaard has spoken at great length of the knight of 
the faith, the simple person who arrived at faith without dif- 
ficulty, without ever having to cross the abysses, the man with 
no chink in his armor, the most enviable of the saints. It 
occurred to Kierkegaard that the knights of faith were subtly 
disguised. The great prelates who attained to holiness by 
the use of hairshirts and midnight flagellations, the philos- 
ophers who pushed thought to the very end of thought, the 
nuns who sacrificed themselves— yes, they possessed an ad- 
mirable holiness, and it would be folly to dispute their love 
of God. But did God love them? It seemed to Kierkegaard 
that God loved most of all the tobacconist at the corner, the 
man who puffed at his pipe and had a little joke for his cus- 
tomers and took his family along the shore every Sunday 
afternoon. In such a man it might be possible to find a faith 
so final that it put the faith of the nuns and the theologians 
to shame. Something of the same thought must have passed 
through the mind of Flaubert when, seeing some peasants in 
the evening gathered at table, he said: "lis sont dans le vrai" 
The man who had spent his life in a titanic struggle with art, 
producing it little by little, chipping it from his breast-bone, 
came to see at the end of his days that art flowered naturally 


round the peasants' table, so naturally that they were hardly 
aware of its presence and took its existence for granted. 

In all this Charlie has his place, and there is nothing at all 
fanciful in seeing him as one of those rare archetypal figures 
like Don Juan, Pierrot and Faust, who arise unexpectedly 
and flower and take on the colors of their time, and inevita- 
bly there will be more Charlies later. Faust, passing through 
the hands of Marlowe, Goethe and a hundred others, demon- 
strated the human spirit's hunger for experience and power 
at periods when that hunger was keenest. Don Juan emerged 
from the hands of Father Gabriel Tellez, the dramatist Tirso 
de Molina, already a rounded figure, though he was to ac- 
quire a forest of cock's feathers in the year to come, and he 
was born anew, with a fierce aplomb and a studied indiffer- 
ence to harm, in the hands of the obscure Da Ponte. As for 
Pierrot, he had lived through a hundred lives before he was 
blessed with maturity from the hands of Deburau; and like 
Don Juan, who descended from the figure of Larva in the 
Jesuit tragedies and even beyond, he had a respectable an- 
cestry. Don Juan demonstrated the human spirit's appetite 
for the conquest of women, but of Pierrot a more subtle 
claim must be made: he represented an awareness of pity, 
the knowledge that failure is important and often desired, 
and that out of failure arise the most triumphant conquests. 
Pierrot partakes of the glory of Don Juan, for all men in a 
sense fail to accomplish the one thing they most desire, which 
is to possess a woman, and Don Juan fails more tragically 
than most. 

The dancing figure of Charlie represents a human and 
more practical quest. He has no desire for conquests. His 
desire is for freedom in a trammelled world. He is the virgin 
spirit of liberty who refuses to be oppressed, refuses to talk 
in mock profundities, refuses to concern himself with the 
origin of the universe or with anything except the prac- 
tical things of the moment, Vhomme moyen sensuel raised to 
the pitch of perfection, desiring above all that the world 


should provide him with sleep, rest, food and amusement, 
bewildered by machines, and still more bewildered by him- 
self, by the fact that a man is a man. He is the least dangerous 
of the great archetypes, the most human, the most incor- 
rigibly concerned with things as they are. His characteristics 
are a terrible enthusiasm and an odd mania for laughing at 
the world's incongruities, and in his own capricious way he 
is determined, like Cinderella, that the last should be first, 
but he goes further, for with the crook of his bamboo cane 
or a jab in the eye he ensures that the guilty are condemned. 
And since, as we have shown, he is nothing more than the 
great god Pan reduced to human size and wearing a human 
dress, there is no reason why we should be surprised to find 
him among the archetypes, and of all the archetypes he is 
the one whose emergence is fraught with most consequence, 
for he is the only one who is not evil. 

Faust's sin, like the sin of Don Juan, was one of blazing 
spiritual pride. They knew no limits to their power. They 
were determined upon rebellion and presumption, on the 
breaching of divine law; and in the popular imagination 
they were always conceived in the glare of infernal fires. They 
were dark spirits, with the look of demonic majesty on their 
faces, cruel, merciless and terribly real, so that people rec- 
ognised themselves in the flame-lit characters. They were 
cruel not in order to be kind or because they saw virtue in 
cruelty for cruelty's sake, but because they regarded other 
people as in their way; they must destroy others to achieve 
their victory, and every virgin and every honorable man was 
their legitimate prey. But Charlie is no hunter, desires no 
prey, is in quest of no El Dorados, and he remains a great 
personage because he transcends life and the limitations of 
ordinary life by his infinite resource in dealing with life as 
it is lived. In this sense he is a far more heroic figure than 
Faust who merely transacts a legal document with Meph- 
istopheles or Don Juan who goes out of his way to erect bar- 
riers between himself and the women he inconveniently 


desires, for he lives in the real world, his enemies real en- 
emies, his blunders real blunders from which he can only 
extricate himself by real and human acts. He is no Don 
Quixote wandering in a land of dreams. He desires the prin- 
cess, and he knows that she is already married to her prince, 
and therefore he must go on his way. No windmills fall be- 
fore him. He has a gypsy's love for simple things, the open 
road, flowers, the flesh of women, a good meal, and all the 
excitements of incongruity and irony. It is odd that it has 
been rarely recorded of him that he is essentially a moral 
figure, and that he came to birth in an age when morality 
was in decline and he could only have come to birth in such 
an age. What is even more astonishing is that the author of 
this prodigious archetype has been so bitterly attacked. 

The failure of the public to recognise the validity and 
delicacy of Monsieur Verdoux springs from many causes: 
not the least of them was the blunting of our sensibilities by 
the war. Charlie was playing dangerously in the shadow of 
total annihilation, that shadow which we fear above all 
things; even in that shadow he dared to laugh, and not only 
because he was himself wearing the faintly sinister disguise 
of someone who pretends to be the agent of annihilation. 
Refusing to face such a shadow, we become a little like the 
resourceful Countess Aurelie who, living in her underground 
cellar, habitually read Le Gaulois of March 22, 1903, be- 
cause this was the best issue the editors ever published, 
though she added that it was always a shock to see in the 
columns reserved for the lists of the dead the name of a close 
acquaintance who seemed to die every morning. When Mon- 
sieur Verdoux appeared we were still living in the past. "Who 
wants to have imaginary people staring at us, especially 
strangers?" says one of the other characters in Giraudoux's 
wonderful play, and something very similar must have been 
said by the people who saw Monsieur Verdoux and went 
away disgusted. If they had looked a little closer they would 
have noticed that the imaginary person was no stranger, but 


someone who lived far too close to their hearts for comfort. 
It had been like that from the very beginning: Charlie had 
leaped out of space to find his home in the human heart. 
The man who acted the part, and who was terror-stricken by 
the creation of his imagination, was a prodigious actor who 
acted with his whole body, limbs and torso, but it was Char- 
lie rather than Chaplin who gave back to the soul its earthly 
covering of body. In time Chaplin will be forgotten, but 
Charlie will remain. He will have a place in the cosmography 
of the imagination which every generation maps afresh, but 
in every thousand years only a few new legends are permitted 
to enter. He will live in the world inhabited by Alexander 
the Great, Napoleon, and the Borgias, with Robin Hood, 
King Arthur and the Wandering Jew as his companions; 
Punch, Pierrot and Harlequin will be his accomplices in 
mischief, and somewhere to the north of his favor there will 
be Faustus and Don Juan, wearing their legendary masks, 
striking their legendary attitudes, and like them he will dis- 
appear out of history into masquerade. Don Quixote lives 
there, and so does Ulysses. In this world, where Nausicaa is 
forever playing ball by the seashore and Falstaff is forever 
quaffing his flagons of rude ale, Charlie's place is assured. It 
is even possible that his place is at the very center of the 
fabulous island, since of all the heroes he is most like our- 
selves once we have removed our false beards, ear-trumpets 
and magnifying spectacles and show ourselves more naked 
than we care to be. The formula for Charlie was potent. The 
elements have been so mixed in him that the recreative ac- 
tivities of latter-day actors will hardly be able to change him. 
For all the foreseeable future he will walk down the brightly 
lit roads of the mind, swinging his cane and dexterously pick- 
ing up cigarette butts, flaunting his absurdly human dignity 
in the face of the world's importunity, a pirate nailing his 
flag to the mast, but instead of crossed bones and a skull the 
flag shows a pair of battered boots and a polished derby, those 
signs of our human dignity and waywardness. 


Charlie was not, of course, the only clown to show an ap- 
preciation of human dignity, and thereby launch himself 
into eternity. In our own age at least one other has appeared. 
Raimu, with his equatorial waistline, his buttony mustache 
and foolscap of knitted wool, had some of Falstaff's fervor 
and Falstaff's inability to recognise the harshness of the 
world, even though he complained about it. He takes his 
pleasure where he can. He, too, covers the soul with flesh, 
and he knows Charlie's trick of claiming a place in both 
worlds, the world of bouillabaisse and provengal women and 
the timeless world of contemplation. In The Baker's Wife 
Raimu is the proud possessor of a young and pneumatic 
wife. He is the friend of everyone in the village, and he even 
has a good word to say for an exasperating and long-necked 
priest, who is a model of the young cure who is determined 
to change the ways of the village. He is a baker, and therefore 
possesses a sacramental function in the village, but the baker's 
wife is a jade who runs away with a handsome farm-hand. 
The villagers attempt to comfort Raimu, and while comfort- 
ing him they get drunk, and when in their drunkenness they 
bring him a pair of antlers, he refuses to accept their mock- 
ery. He refuses indeed to understand them. Why have they 
come? What are these antlers in comparison with what he 
has lost; and so he falls to bed, dreaming of his wife, patting 
and smoothing down the bedclothes where he expected her 
to be, and then jumping up in the middle of the night to 
hurl imprecations on a world so unjust that it removes from 
him his chief source of felicity. Even when he attempts to 
commit suicide, he is responsible only to himself, for no one 
else must suffer. The antlers, the drunken friends have noth- 
ing to do with his death. The act of suicide is no more than 
a bewildered recognition of the tumult in his own soul, a 
gesture of despair wrung from his heart rather than from 
their deeds. But in the middle of this nightmare he remem- 
bers the bread, and with a steadfast air of dignity he wanders 
from the bedroom to the bakery. There, at a slower pace and 


without the staccato rhythm which Charlie has made pecul- 
iarly his own, we are aware that we are in the presence of 
the same theme which runs providentially through The 
Bank, The Kid, City Lights, and half the intervening films. 
It is odd that in none of Chaplin's films except A Woman 
of Paris is there an unfaithful wife, for in the history of 
Charlie infidelity clearly has a place. An unfaithful wife is 
promised in Limelight, and this is perhaps as it should be, 
for only at the very end can Charlie be expected to reveal 
all his secrets. 

Raimu and Chaplin share the eminence. Fernandel with 
his charming leer and his horse-face belongs to carnival, a 
face copied from the painted ten-foot dolls. The Marx broth- 
ers possessed an anarchic fire until the seeds of Brooklyn 
respectability addled them. W. C. Fields was wholly given 
over to anarchic fire, but the fire alone is hardly sufficient. 
Donald Duck, the one great creation of the Disney studios, 
died of the weariness of repeating a single barking cackle, 
but he was majestic while he lasted, and in Elysium he fol- 
lows on Charlie's heels. Close to the eminence are Ben Tur- 
pin, Slim Somerville, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton, and 
Roscoe Arbuckle is not far behind. The great deadpan faces 
of the Keystone and Roach comedies were wonderful evoca- 
tions of American legend, the stone faces springing out of 
the folklore of the tramps, the bums and the I. W. W. They 
came from the same cradle which produced the man so lean 
that he cast no shadow; six rattlesnakes struck at him once, 
and every one missed him. Charlie was not deadpan, though 
he would sometimes with great effort suggest that he could 
be. As for Chaplin, who can clown as well as Charlie, he is, 
as Mack Sennett has said repeatedly, "simply the greatest 
actor who has ever lived," but this is probably the least im- 
portant fact about him. 

As he grows older, reflecting on the impermanence of fame 
and the permanence of legends, Chaplin has not lost his 
love of clowning. The great clown tends to be lost in the 


greater Charlie. It is probably a pity. There are times when 
Chaplin at his eternal game of mimicry could hoot Charlie 
off the stage; and there is as much magic about the man as 
in the character he invented. Charlie was an accident— we 
remember Mack Swain's mustache and Roscoe Arbuckle's 
trousers. What if they had not been there? There are a hun- 
dred comic characters which Chaplin could have played, if 
he had ever allowed himself to dwell for more than a few 
moments on the imps which crowd in his brain. I have seen 
him do things which I thought only Indian fakirs could do. 
His deep blue smoky eyes can change color. In a moment his 
splendidly arched brow can become low and mean. His face 
and neck can swell out until he resembles to perfection the 
latest news photograph of Winston Churchill, or he can suck 
in his cheeks until he resembles some poor devil in a prison 
camp, and by some unwarranted process of magic he can 
speak the very words they would utter. He still enters a room 
so superbly quiet that you hardly notice he is there, and 
there is nothing about him in the least like Charlie. As in 
his youth he resembled Keats, so in age he bears (in the rare 
moments when his face is in repose) an astonishing resem- 
blance to the elder Yeats, with a great mane of white hair, 
the face bronzed, the lips pursed, the hands at rest; and just 
as he enters quietly, so he can disappear as quietly— gone 
like a flash, leaving the air quivering behind him. 

I have seen him many times, and it was always the same— 
the odd quietness, and the curious passion for disappearing, 
so that he gives at times the appearance of a man who desires 
to watch, and only to watch. He is not tall, but he gives the 
impression of tallness. He still talks with the faintest of 
Cockney accents, but the mellowness of southern American 
accents— where did he learn them?— is also there, a professor's 
voice, or a scholar's, the voice of a man who is accustomed 
to live alone, and is surprised to hear himself speaking. You 
are not conscious of his clothes; you are conscious only of that 
head, glowing in the sun, a head which grows stronger and 


more leonine as the years pass, so that you wonder how it was 
ever possible that a man who looks like a president of a vast 
company or a poet should be remembered as the little chalk- 
white tramp with the long boots and the waving cane, run- 
ning madly in the face of authority, as a moth runs at a 

But when the mood takes him another Chaplin appears 
who is infinitely remote from the presiding genius of United 
Artists. Chaplin the clown has all of Beckmann's powers. He 
comes into the room unobserved and unannounced, very 
casually, with that curious power of self-effacement, and then 
suddenly, no one knows how it begins, he is the center of the 
stage. He begins to gesture. He tells a story. It may be a story 
about a fishing trip to Santa Barbara or Catalina Island, but 
the story becomes something else— it becomes pure comedy. 
With gestures Chaplin outlines the fish, the line, the ship, 
the watching seagulls, the way the line is thrown, the way 
the fish with greedy eyes runs scampering after the bait. You 
are no longer conscious of the presence of Chaplin, but of 
the roar of the sea, the desperate struggles of the fish, the 
creaking of the ship's timbers. The fight goes on. The fish 
butts the boat, the fisherman falls overboard, and now the 
fish has become as large as leviathan. The tremendous battle 
is waged in the room, and you are convulsed and helpless 
with laughter, and at the moment when you can bear the 
sight of the comic battle no longer, he introduces another 
fish which comes to the rescue of the first, and then the ship 
springs a leak, and then crowds of small fishing-boats come 
out of nowhere, and somewhere in the sea he is struggling 
in mortal combat with leviathan, and there is no end to it, 
for always at the moment when you think the story is coming 
to its conclusion Chaplin has introduced from nowhere some 
miraculous element, some new and outrageous adventure 
which must be followed to its conclusion, but there is no 
conclusion, and it is only when you are sick with laughing 
and crying that he will pause long enough to let you breathe 


again. Give him a lace handkerchief. He will become an old 
dowager, a senorita, a Russian noblewoman congratulating 
Chaliapin on his voice, the lace handkerchief becoming a 
fichu, a mantilla, the little square of silk in which the Rus- 
sian noblewoman drowns her sobs. In the end, of course, 
with something of Charlie's nonchalance, he may wipe his 
nose very brusquely with the handkerchief, and so put an 
end to the performance, but when he was taking the part 
of the old dowager, she was there, and like Beckmann she 
brought with her the air she lived in, the whole furniture 
of her mind, her hobbling walk, the delicate way in which 
her fingertips touched the furniture in her room. With relish 
he will play the part of one of those girls who haunt Japanese 
bath-houses, or a city stock-broker, or any politician. They 
are all observed minutely, with love and irony. He could, if 
he wanted to, mimic the New York telephone book or the 
Selective Service Act, and at once they would become both 
ideally true and hilariously funny. 

There are blind beggars who wander over North China 
with bells fixed to their knees and clapboards attached to 
their legs and a great collection of musical instruments slung 
over their chests or tied to their ankles; one blind beggar 
alone tells a story to the sound of a full orchestra. When 
Chaplin tells a story, you are conscious of the presence of a 
full orchestra. Somehow, by some miracle, he conveys the 
story in all its depths. There will be ten or twelve characters 
in the story. By a gesture, by a tone of voice, by some trick 
of shading, you come to know each of them as you know 
your friends. Then, when the story is over, it is quite likely 
that he will disappear from the room, vanishing as mysteri- 
ously as he entered it; it is only long afterwards that you 
remember he was wearing an outrageous red velvet coat and 
a pair of grey slacks. 

There are mysteries in Chaplin which no one will ever 
dare to plumb. The perfection of the technique is bewilder- 
ing; he is over sixty, but the casual sureness of gesture and 


mime remains, increasing in brilliance with every day that 
passes; and like the elder Yeats he seems to acquire power 
with age. There are moments when he wearies of Charlie. 
He will say, "I am so sick of him. I'd like to wring his neck. 
I'll never make another film with him." The next moment 
he is drawing out of the air the most impossible situations, 
the most ridiculous distortions, and through all these mazes 
he pictures Charlie at his wrecker's game, humbling the 
proud, falling in love with all the pretty women, almost de- 
lighting to be repulsed, at odds with the malevolence and 
idiocies of the world. Whole volumes concerning the life of 
Charlie have been left on the cutting-room floor; more vol- 
umes have been told by Chaplin with that quietly disin- 
genuous air of someone revealing the sacred mysteries. I 
asked him once where Charlie was going during the fade-out, 
when he wanders down an empty lane, shrugging his shoul- 
ders and kicking at a stone. He said darkly: "He is going 
nowhere. He is only the blind mole digging into his hole." 
The blaze of neon lights from a deserted sandwich joint on 
Wilshire Boulevard fell on his face. For a moment he looked 
like Mephistopheles. 

It was one answer; there were a thousand others. Like 
Proteus, Chaplin can assume a thousand shapes, hint at a 
thousand ironies, balance his thousand legs upon a thousand 
tightropes. Chaplin at his clowning has a wider range than 
Charlie, but in some subtle fashion Charlie always included 
those possibilities which the clown has explored, and we 
know that when he is amusing himself quietly in some evil- 
smelling doss-house, where all the misery of the world is 
accumulating, Charlie will invent for himself those creatures 
who are continually being invented by Chaplin with pro- 
digious abandon. Chaplin and Charlie have one thing in 
common: they are concerned with ultimates. The dowager 
is the ultimate of dowagers. The fish caught off Catalina Is- 
land is the ultimate of fishes. The Japanese bath-girl is the 


ultimate of Japanese bath-girls. And the mole digging into 
his hole is the ultimate of moles. 

Because he deals with ultimates, Chaplin is inevitably the 
child of paradox. He will say, for example: "Why shouldn't 
I mock poverty? The poor deserve to be mocked. What fools 
they are!" He will say this savagely, the face becoming a mask 
of horror-stricken accusation. "Why don't they rebel against 
poverty? Why do they accept it? It is the ultimate stupidity 
to accept poverty when there are all the riches of the world— 
every man should have them." The next moment, confronted 
with human misery, knowing that it is there, knowing that 
there is almost nothing he can do about it, he will say: "The 
whole world is full of poor devils caught in the trap. How 
will they ever get out? I've tried to help them to forget the 
trap in my films, but the trap is still there." He once told 
the Russian producer Eisenstein: "You remember the scene in 
Easy Street where I scatter food from a box to poor children 
as if they were chickens? You see, I did this because I despise 
them. I don't like children." Those were the words which 
Eisenstein remembered, and it is likely enough that Chaplin 
said them, but it would be absurd to accuse Chaplin of a 
savage intolerance on the basis of a remembered phrase. He 
has shown too many times a tenderness for children so real, 
so overwhelming that it is like a wound. It is possible to go 
insane by loving too much, by being tender too much. The 
tortured sensitivity of the artist is the price he pays for 
the abundance of his love, and when he scattered food to the 
poor children he was remembering, and subtly transforming, 
the way in which food had been served to him at an orphan- 
age in London. 

The presence of a comic genius in our civilization presents 
almost as many problems as the presence of Charlie. What 
role is to be played by the comic genius? The Roman Em- 
perors took care that the great mimes should be close to the 
throne. Every manner of honor was showered upon them. 
They were known to be dangerous. They were like walking 


explosives. They had the power to turn the people against 
the Emperor, and they were known to be afraid of nothing. 
Two clowns were executed by the Emperor Tiberius for 
mimicking him, and so bringing his rule into jeopardy. The 
court jesters of the middle ages were sometimes roped to the 
throne by little golden chairs, perhaps for fear they might 
escape and jest before the people. Dimly, it was recognised 
that they possessed powers denied to the Emperor. They were 
closer to the sources of life. They spoke when they spoke at 
all— for mostly they claimed a prodigious indifference, and 
were silent for long periods— only at moments of illumina- 
tion, and so they were cousins to the sybils, who lived mys- 
teriously in caves and uttered prophecies over braziers. The 
Emperor was thought to have absolute power over the em- 
pire, but he knew with one word, with one laugh pitched 
to the exact pitch, the clown could destroy the kingdom, as 
a singer will destroy a wineglass. It has never happened, of 
course, but it is conceivable that it might happen: in the 
totalitarian states comedians may never approach a live mi- 
crophone. The dangers and triumphs of comedy are very 
real, and they are especially real in totalitarian times. The 
opposite of the dictator is the clown. Between them there 
can be no peace; hence Chaplin's dilemma when he at- 
tempted to play both roles. Because he is the opposite of the 
dictator the clown is dedicated to playing a heroic role, per- 
haps the most heroic of all, for since his moral function is 
to remind us of our common humanity and take delight in 
it, he is the enemy of bureaucracy equally, of all the pigeon- 
holes into which governments, acknowledging their incom- 
petence to deal with human beings, attempt to squeeze us. 
Secretly the clown rules. More than the poet he is the un- 
acknowledged legislator of our lives, and we may thank God 
that this is so. Out of the nettle danger he plucks a sense of 
our real humanity each for the other. There was a time when 
this was called morality. 

The achievement of Chaplin was a singularly moral 


achievement. He has invented an archetype whose purpose 
was a moral one, and he gave the game away when he came 
to utter the anguished and impassioned cry which concludes 
The Great Dictator: 

The good earth is rich and can provide for 

The way of life can be free and beautiful, 
But we have lost the way. 
Greed has poisoned men's souls, 
Has barricaded the world with hate, 
Has goosestepped us into misery and 

We have developed speed, , 

But we have shut ourselves in. 
Machinery that gives abundance has left us 

in want. 
Our knowledge has made us cynical. 
Our cleverness, hard and unkind. 
We think too much and feel too little. 
More than machinery we need humanity. 
To those who can hear me, I say— Do not 

The misery that has come upon us is but 

the passing of greed, 
The bitterness of men who fear the way of 

human progress. 
The hate of men will pass, and dictators 

And the power they took from the people 

will return to the people. 
And so long as men die, liberty will never 


So long as men die . . . We might have known from the be- 
ginning that a clown's confession of faith would implicate 


We are hungrier for morality than we know, so hungry 
that we leave the flesh outside and go spinning after peace 
of mind. It is not peace of mind so much as peace of body 
which will put an end to our miseries; and we have not be- 
gun to learn to comfort others bodily. The clown does it by 
making us laugh, by pulling the curtain aside and showing 
us the world as it really is, the joyful abandon underneath 
the frigid mask; and Charlie, hungry to the point of undis- 
criminating excess, feverishly in love with love, points the 
way to the substance of the moral life. He knows that men 
create themselves by their acts, not by their conventions; 
therefore he acts with the freshness of a child, and asks why 
one should act in any other way. He makes his conventions 
as he goes along, and always with daring, and always with 
courage. He cares not a fig for the dictators and bullies; he 
will throw them down as calmly as he will kick a lump of 
mud in the road. If we are frightened and would like to sleep 
because we are afraid, he will tell stories to keep us awake. 
He knows, as the elders of the Church once knew and then 
forgot, that divine grace is not conferred on all the schoolmen 
or even on all the prophets; the charwoman may be the pos- 
sessor of a saint's nimbus; grace is not conferred only on cer- 
tain individuals but on all alike. The moral of his story is 
that there is no moral except the dignity of man under 
heaven. As for Chaplin's own achievement, as distinguished 
from Charlie's (which belongs to another order), he knows 
mortality too well to care very much for recognition— to seek 
recognition as a person is foolishly to deny one's own double- 
ness. The world is as it is; men turn into clay; the canisters 
of film will also perish. But at least for a brief while he has 
held up a candle which dazzles with a joyful light. In the end 
his achievement is a part of the divine love in mankind which 
will one day succeed in abolishing the idea of particular per- 
sons altogether, those individual ghosts who haunt us all, 
packaged and labelled with our names, as though names were 
more than scratches haphazardly put together. Scotus Erigena 


believed that in the end we become mere points of light 
swimming in the divine consciousness, an unhappy fate, for 
the sunlit waves can do this sort of thing better. St. Paul and 
earlier schoolmen believed in a nobler destiny: that on the 
Day of Judgment we shall arise in flesh and in joy. A pity we 
should have to wait so long. 

Now that we live in the long shadow of the rainbow-col- 
ored clouds, it is good to remember Charlie, who arises in 
flesh and in joy and impudence and sheer delight of the 
world around him, fiercely jubilant, as men often are when 
under fire, and with no cares to speak of, no guilt to wash 
clean. Like St. Francis he tips his hat at the birds and trees, 
and will sing a song with the farm-girls. Smitten by the moon, 
he comes with the gifts of Pan, and in these treacherous days 
one can do worse than fall in step and beat a drum beside 


A Note on the Author 

Robert Payne is a continuator of the prolific tra- 
dition of writing. Oddly enough, that is sometimes held 
against him. Our age is supposed to make a cult of energy, 
and yet some people think that an author who at the age of 
forty has written about forty-five books is a suspicious phe- 
nomenon. The writers of Defoe's day would not have thought 

Payne is versatile as well as prolific. He has written poetry, 
criticism, travel sketches, novels, biographies, essays, and he 
has edited anthologies. What is so odd about the range and 
variety of his production? G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc 
were applauded for having more than one string to their 
bows. It is in the tradition of the English man of letters that 
he should write many books and of various kinds. We should 
not forget that Payne was born in Cornwall in ipu and re- 
ceived an English education at Capetown (South Africa) and 
Liverpool Universities. In recent years he has lived in the 
United States but his style is more English than American. 

It should be said at once that he is a cosmopolitan English- 
man. In all, he went to four universities; after Liverpool he 
studied at the Sorbonne and at Munich. He has taught at 



three colleges, Fuhtan and Lienta in China, and Montevallo 
in Alabama. He has lived on four continents. We may call 
him, like Dos Passos, a globetrotting author. 

Among his leading works have been Forever China, The 
Young Emperor, Red Lion Inn, and The Fathers of the West- 
ern Church. He has long wished to do a definitive study of 
the art of Charles Chaplin, and after immersion in his subject 
for several years, he defined his purpose as follows: 

"The Great God Pan is being written in order to get to 
grips with the various levels on which the film character of 
Chaplin exists. I assume that the tramp is a tragic character 
as well as a comic one, and further that the tragedy of the 
tramp is closely related to the tragedy of our time. From that 
point onward the book will be an exploration of character, 
an attempt to discover what lies behind the shadow on the 

About his writing habits Payne has told Harry Hansen: 
"I write because the subjects interest me. And I am not glib. 
I work hard, and study hard. I simply make good use of my 

Here we have the secret of Payne's considerable produc- 
tion. In a word, it is industry— which was the secret of TroL 
lope and Arnold Bennett. He has acquired the fluency that is 
the sign of the professional literary man; he writes at odd 
times during the day and late at night; he makes full use of 
his time off from teaching at Montevallo College; he is a 
model of industry. Industry does it. A few hundred words a 
day add up, and at the end of a year there are several books 
completed. It is as simple as that, and it requires no skimping 


on research, no hasty thinking, no careless writing to main- 
tain the pace. 

Payne sets high standards for himself and achieves them. 
The mediocre literary specialist stands rebuked by his wide- 
ranging scholarship, his gusto, and his eloquence. 


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